Pace of U.S. evacuations quickens

story.evac.splash.gifOn Thursday about 2,250 Americans left Lebanon, and another 3,000 are expected to depart Friday, State Department officials said. So far, the number of “assisted departures” is approximately 3,850 out of an estimated 25,000 Americans in country.

Another 400 people made it to Syria by land, said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of consular affairs.

As the population of the staging area in Cyprus mushroomed, attempts were being made to quickly move Americans to the United States. The first charter flight from Cyprus touched down at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport with 138 Americans aboard, Harty said.

Four flights left Cyprus for Baltimore, Maryland, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and as many as six departures are planned for Friday, she said.

In addition, she said, a bus convoy carrying 341 Americans arrived in Beirut on Thursday from southern Lebanon. Those people boarded the Orient Queen cruise ship, which has been leased by the United States to ferry citizens to Cyprus.

Lebanon has become increasingly dangerous since Hezbollah guerillas captured two Israeli soldiers during a raid into northern Israel on July 12. Israel has launched daily airstrikes in many parts of the country and sent troops into the south, while the militant group has fired rockets into northern Israel.

With the numbers of Americans exceeding the 2,200 per day that Cyprus can comfortably receive, U.S. officials are opening a similar base of operations in Mersin, Turkey, Harty said.

From there, they will be taken to Incirlik Air Base for travel to the United States, she said.

The State Department has abandoned its request that Americans make an appointment for evacuation and is accepting those who show up at the Port of Beirut as space becomes available, Harty said.

She urged Americans who choose to remain in Lebanon to monitor the embassy’s Web site and listen to local radio station 105.5 for information.

Vessels shuttling between Beirut and Cyprus include the 1,000 person-capacity cruise ship Orient Queen; the Panamanian-flagged high-speed ferry Ramah, which can carry 1,400 passengers; the Navy transport USS Nashville, which can carry more than 1,000 passengers; and a number of other naval ships, she said. The scene in Beirut was dramatically different from that in 1984, when Marines left en masse from Lebanon a few months after a 1983 barracks bombing that killed 241 Marines.

This time around the Marines were helping families, some with babies in strollers, and others evacuate. Crowds of people leaving Lebanon trudged from the beach through shallow water and up the ramp of a landing craft, lugging suitcases and backpacks

As the smaller landing vessels arrived with evacuees at the Nashville, Americans were greeted with a hand-painted sheet that read, “USS Nashville Welcomes You!” and was signed by the deck crew.

On board the Nashville, the first groups to arrive tried to relax, sitting on cots and listening to music.

Children played on the deck and talked to sailors and Marines, while older people tried to nap.

The Italian high-speed ferry Vittoria was expected to begin carrying as many as 330 passengers Saturday.

U.S. military helicopters carried more than 160 people between Lebanon and Cyprus on Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman said.

Marine officials did not speak at length about the security measures in place for the evacuation. But the Marines were all armed, and U.S. Navy combat vessels were constantly circling the area.

Harty said she could not predict what the total number of evacuations will be. “We will stay and get this job done,” she said.

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