BEIRUT — Eighteen American officials were evacuated from Beirut to Cyprus on Thursday because of the uncertain security situation in the Lebanese capital.
A U.S. Embassy official, speaking on condition that he not be named, said that the evacuation primarily involved personnel temporarily assigned to Beirut and State Department employees who were taking leave ahead of schedule.
U.S. Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew remained in Beirut with about 22 other American officials. No effort has been made to evacuate non-official Americans living in the Lebanese capital. A U.S. official in Washington said, "We had urged all private Americans in Beirut to leave long ago."
The 18 Americans, who were secretly evacuated during the night and early morning hours, flew to Cyprus aboard three U.S. Navy helicopters.
American diplomats in Lebanon have been working out of the ambassador's heavily-guarded official residence in Yarze, a suburb three miles east of Beirut, ever since last September's suicide car bomb attack on an embassy annex in Aukur, also east of the capital. That blast killed 14 people, including two Americans.
For the last three days, the eastern portion of the capital and its suburbs, which are Christian areas, have been gripped by a power struggle pitting a rebel militia commander against President Amin Gemayel. Rival troops have taken up positions in the area.
The first word of the partial evacuation came in Washington when White House spokesman Larry Speakes and State Department spokesman Edward Djerejian read identical statements:
"At the moment, we have moved some embassy personnel out of Lebanon as a temporary measure because of the current unsettled situation in the East Beirut area. The embassy is functioning, but with a limited staff. The ambassador remains at his post."
Asked why the United States did not close the embassy entirely, Djerejian said, "We believe it is very important that we maintain our presence in Lebanon in view of the continuing U.S. interest in Lebanon."
There has also been concern in Washington about a possible retaliatory strike against American interests here because of the U.S. veto cast in the United Nations two days ago, killing a Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli activities in southern Lebanon. Last year's attack on the Aukar embassy complex occurred eight days after the U.S. veto of another resolution dealing with the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
Despite the removal of most official Americans, Djerejian said that the United States continues to support the Gemayel government.
In response to the revolt of the militia commander, the State Department spokesman said, "We support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lebanon, and we support the efforts of the central government under President Gemayel to restore sovereignty over all Lebanese territory. We believe that security for all Lebanese can best be achieved by restoration of central government authority."
The United States also has an elaborate embassy complex in predominantly Muslim West Beirut, but the facility never opened because of the bomb blast in Aukar.
The Reagan Administration has moved three U.S. warships--the aircraft carrier Eisenhower and the guided missile ships Mississippi and Montgomery--into the eastern Mediterranean off the Lebanese coast to help with a possible evacuation of non-official Americans. About 1,500 American citizens remain in Beirut, although many are Lebanese holding dual nationality.
Thirty-six Americans working for the U.N. force in southern Lebanon were told last week to stay away from work and remain at their homes in northern Israel because of threats against Americans in Lebanon.
The embassy sharply reduced its official staff before last November's U.S. presidential election because of telephone calls from a shadowy group calling itself Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War) threatening to attack U.S. interests. Staff levels were not increased again until January.
An embassy official described the evacuation as "a temporary measure," and said that American officials are staying in contact with their Lebanese counterparts "on a wide range of issues."
Meanwhile, a British scientist who worked near the U.S. Embassy complex in West Beirut was kidnaped Thursday by three gunmen armed with pistols. Police said Geoffrey Nash, a metallurgist for the Lebanese government, was seen being pushed into a yellow car early in the day.
Nash, 60, is married to a Lebanese woman and has lived in the Arab world for three decades.
Because of the location of his office at Lebanon's Industrial Research Institute, behind the closed West Beirut complex of the U.S. embassy, there was speculation that Nash had been mistaken for an American by the kidnapers.
Times reporter Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this story.