WASHINGTON — The United States secretly evacuated an undisclosed number of American officials from war-torn Lebanon today, the White House announced.
The evacuation occurred during the night and early morning hours, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said.
The official reason given for the pullout was "unsettled conditions" in East Beirut, but there have been fears of Shia Muslim retaliation for a U.S. veto in the United Nations on Tuesday.
Small Presence Maintained
Despite the evacuation, the United States will continue to maintain a small diplomatic presence in the country, Speakes said. Ambassador Reginald Bartholemew "remains at his post," he added, because the United States "believes it is important to maintain our presence in Lebanon in view of our continuing interest in the country."
Speakes declined to say how many Americans had been pulled out of the beleaguered country. Press reports have said the embassy staff had been down to between 20 and 30.
"We continue to be concerned" for the safety of Americans in Lebanon, Speakes said. In addition to embassy personnel, there are an estimated 1,400 Americans in Lebanon, many with dual nationality.
Speakes described the evacuation as a "temporary measure" and told reporters: "We haven't said how they were evacuated or by what method and we won't."
No Details Given
At the Pentagon, spokesman Michael Burch refused to give details about the evacuation, including whether helicopters or planes from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Eisenhower assisted in the withdrawal.
Burch said he would not give details for "the protection of those who were withdrawn and those who remain" in Beirut.
The Eisenhower, accompanied by the guided missile cruiser Mississippi and a destroyer, has been within air striking distance of Lebanon since the beginning of the week after a hasty departure from Majorca last Friday.
Elaborating on the "unsettled conditions," Speakes said officials were concerned about a Falangist faction of the Christian militia that has rebeled against President Amin Gemayel.
Seek 'Total Freedom'
The rebels under Samir Geagea have accused Gemayel of "surrendering to the Syrian will" and said they will settle for nothing short of "the total freedom of the Christian community, a clear and independent strategy and the return to democracy in community affairs." (Story on Page 6.)
The evacuation came two days after the United States vetoed a U.N. resolution that Lebanon had introduced condemning Israel for "barbaric acts" during its military occupation of southern Lebanon.
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who cast the lone negative vote against the resolution, said last week that Lebanese Shia Muslims had threatened American U.N. employees in the event the United States vetoed the resolution.
Thirty-six Americans working with the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon were ordered at that time to stay off the job and remain at their homes in northern Israel.
Two weeks after the United States vetoed a similar U.N. resolution last Sept. 6, suspected Shia militants blew up the U.S. Embassy annex in an East Beirut suburb, killing at least nine people, including two Americans.