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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

U.S. Rescue Bogs Down in Lebanon

July 18, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — Thousands of Americans whose vacations and business trips to Lebanon have degenerated with sickening speed into stints in a battle zone remained stranded here under Israeli bombardment Monday, their frustration and anger mounting because the U.S. government hasn't gotten them out faster.

Waiting around Beirut with bags packed and fingers crossed, U.S. citizens derided the embassy for busy phone lines, a lack of information and gnawing uncertainty over when and whether they will get out. Hundreds were expected to be shipped to Cyprus today, but how long the full evacuation will take remains uncertain.

"I had heard it might take a week, two weeks. You hear so many things," said Pamela Pattie, a 65-year-old professor. "Why in the world aren't we getting it together?"

The frustration has been intensified by news that other countries have already pulled many of their citizens out of Lebanon, efficiently and free of cost. A ferry chartered by the French government carried about 800 of its citizens and several dozen Americans to Cyprus on Monday. The U.S. military evacuated about 60 Americans by helicopter Sunday and Monday.

Other nations have packed people into rented tour buses and driven them over the mountains to Syria. The U.S. State Department has warned Americans against traveling to Syria.

The main U.S. evacuation plan involves a Pentagon-contracted cruise ship, the Orient Queen, due to arrive in Lebanon today to ferry people to Cyprus. The ship can carry about 750 passengers for the five-hour trip. Defense Department officials said other private ships were likely to be hired as well.

Americans have been told to wait for a telephone call that could come in hours -- or days. They've also been told they can't board a ship unless they've signed a contract agreeing to repay the U.S. government for the price of their evacuation.

The rules have angered Americans who are already fatigued and nervous after days of explosions. "I'm freaked out that our government is treating us this way," snapped a Rutgers University student who had been studying Arabic at the American University of Beirut. She declined to give her name for fear she would be taken off the passenger list in retribution for criticizing the evacuation effort.

"Are we a Third World country or what?" she said.

Female students from the American University of Beirut, who had been huddled on the ground floor of their dormitory in case of missile strikes, said they were instructed to take a blanket and a three-day supply of food to Cyprus. They were panicked at the notion of sleeping on the street in a strange country.

Officials estimate that 25,000 Americans have poured into Lebanon this summer. They include tourists, business travelers and students. There are Lebanese who fled the torments of the civil war decades ago and had finally dared take their families back for a visit. There are Lebanese Americans and American Jews, young and old, chasing down lost memories or looking for adventure in this sun-dappled country of pine-studded mountains and pristine beaches.

Now they are all stuck in place, trembling when the bombs shake the ground, sweating because of the broken air conditioners, listening to the roar of Israeli jets -- and waiting to be rescued.

Among the stranded is a 9-year old boy, Noureddine Issa, who received a liver transplant at UCLA Medical Center as an infant. His family, which lives in Los Angeles, was visiting relatives in Beirut when the fighting broke out.

Surgeons at UCLA have been urgently trying to get Noureddine out of the country, fearing he is running out of critical medications.

The U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, sent a 17-person assessment team to the American Embassy on Sunday to prepare for the evacuation, which is being run by a task force based in Cyprus.

The Pentagon is also sending a Navy destroyer, the Gonzalez, to protect the ferry. Defense officials said sailors and aircraft on the Iwo Jima, a helicopter carrier that had been participating in exercises with the Jordanian military, could also be called in to help.

Juliet Wurr, an embassy spokeswoman, said the United States had done its best to help its citizens escape danger. Humanitarian cases -- including children separated from their parents -- have already been flown to safety on helicopters, she said.

She also pointed out that U.S. citizens in Lebanon had ignored the State Department warning against traveling there.

"I wish I could snap my fingers and put an aircraft carrier right outside the Israeli buffer zone," Wurr said. "But it doesn't work like that."

But Americans who have been looking to the embassy for advice describe long and futile quests for information.

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