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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Americans' Beirut Exodus Underway

Hundreds are evacuated by ship and helicopter. The U.S. aims to get 6,000 out this week; others are stuck in southern Lebanon.

July 20, 2006|Johanna Neuman and Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writers

BEIRUT — More than 1,000 U.S. citizens were finally able to escape the fighting in Lebanon on Wednesday, as the first chartered cruise ship carrying American evacuees left Beirut for Cyprus.

As many as 6,000 Americans could be out of Lebanon by the weekend, the U.S. State Department said.

Thousands of Europeans are fleeing as well. Britain expects to evacuate about 5,000 citizens in what officials in London were calling the biggest such operation since the World War II evacuation of Dunkirk, France.

The cruise ship Orient Queen took more than 900 Americans to Cyprus on Wednesday. The Associated Press reported the ship arrived in Larnaca after a nine-hour journey. Others were evacuated by helicopter. The Nashville, an amphibious ship that can carry about 1,000 passengers, arrived off the coast of Lebanon early today. Landing craft and possibly helicopters will transport evacuees to the ship, which will be kept well offshore for safety reasons.

About 40 Marines went ashore to aid in the evacuation, Reuters news agency reported.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the military had chartered another commercial vessel, the Rahmah, which is to arrive in Beirut on Friday. It can hold 1,400 passengers, he said.

But the increased efforts to get Americans to safety are, for the moment, bypassing hundreds who are awaiting safe passage out of southern Lebanon.

"We have several groups of people congregated and ready to move," said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of State for consular affairs. "We'd like to get them out of harm's way."

Harty said those Americans would remain in southern Lebanon "until we think it's safe and prudent.... We're always going to err on the side of caution."

On the deck of the Orient Queen, Tony Zeinoun and his children snapped pictures, with Beirut's skyline as a backdrop.

Zeinoun, a Virginia contractor, had fled his homeland during the country's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. On this trip, his first time back in seven years, he had brought his family to see relatives.

"We come back now and all hell breaks loose," he said. "We took a chance."

He looked ruefully at the tangle of cranes rising over Beirut's downtown, largely rebuilt after being devastated in the civil war. Zeinoun had read about the reconstruction and had looked forward to seeing it.

"It's a pity we've only gotten to see it from the ship," he said. "It's devastating. It's still being rebuilt."

Hours before the ship pulled out, Jomana Abdellah curled up in a chair on the deck and stared out over the city. A Lebanese American who runs a San Diego doughnut shop with her husband, Abdellah, 48, had come to Lebanon a month ago to visit her ailing mother.

The two women were visiting family in southern Lebanon just before Hezbollah guerrillas took two Israeli soldiers captive. She and her elderly parents were trapped in Nabatiyeh as the Israeli shelling intensified. Their neighbors urged them to wait for calm, but it didn't come.

"Every day we waited, and it got worse and worse," Abdellah said. "Finally my husband and kids called and said, 'Do whatever it takes to get out of there.' "

Nobody wanted to take her north, she said -- the bombing was too fierce. Finally she talked a taxi driver into making the trip; she paid him $400 and packed her parents into the car. She doesn't know how the road was, she said, because she rode the whole way with her face pressed to her knees, crying.

"Every time I looked, I hid my face again," she said. "I didn't want to see anything."

It has been seven years since she last visited Lebanon.

"I won't come again," she said flatly. "I won't do it."

As the evacuation was stepped up, the White House notified congressional leaders of possible deployment of "combat-equipped U.S. military forces" to Lebanon and Cyprus to assist in the efforts. The War Powers Resolution requires such notification.

President Bush's letter said "a contingent of U.S. military personnel" had landed in Beirut on Sunday "to assist in planning and conducting the departure from Lebanon of U.S. Embassy personnel and citizens." More troops may be deployed "as necessary" to assist in the evacuation, the letter said.

Pentagon officials said the deployment was solely to aid in the rescue efforts, but added that they were studying supplemental rules of engagement in case the troops were attacked or became embroiled in the fighting.

The last major deployment of U.S. troops in Lebanon was in 1983, and ended after a suicide bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Beirut killed 241 Marines. Hezbollah is widely believed to have been involved.

The U.S. has been criticized for a delay in organizing the evacuation of American citizens in Lebanon, estimated at about 25,000.

But military officials defended the pace. "This is a war zone, we have to get it right the first time," said Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero, deputy director of regional operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We're not going to rush to failure."

The U.S. efforts did not begin until the Navy destroyer Gonzalez, equipped with a sophisticated antimissile radar system, arrived in the region. It was followed Wednesday by a second Aegis radar-equipped guided-missile destroyer, the Barry.

Because of the sensitivity of intelligence on threats to U.S. ships in the region, Pentagon officials declined to comment on whether Hezbollah's new anti-ship capabilities -- one of its rockets struck and almost sank an Israeli naval vessel -- were a direct factor in the pace of the evacuation mission.

Neuman reported from Washington and Stack from Beirut. Times staff writer Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.

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