Americans evacuate war-torn Lebanon
BEIRUT, Lebanon – The United States ramped up its evacuation of citizens from Lebanon after a slow start as a luxury cruise ship carrying 1,000 Americans arrived in Cyprus early today, a week after the Israeli bombardment began.
The eight-deck Orient Queen reached Cyprus’ port of Larnaca after a nine-hour journey, completing the first in a massive relay to evacuate thousands of U.S. citizens from war-torn Lebanon.
The Orient Queen was just one among dozens of cruise ships taking part in the evacuation of thousands of foreigners from Lebanon.
The Americans departed two days after the first Europeans left on ships, and thousands more Europeans continued to stream out by sea Wednesday. The USS Nashville, which was to take some 1,200 Americans to Cyprus, anchored off the coast of Lebanon this morning.
Amid complaints the U.S. effort had lagged, American officials made clear that fears about Americans traveling on roads, especially at night, had led to some of the delays. The U.S. ambassador said Tuesday that an orderly and safe evacuation had been a first priority.
The Europeans faced some of the same difficulties: the airport closed by Israeli strikes and concerns about the safety of roads to Syria. But it was clear U.S. officials feared any large evacuation effort moving Americans might be targeted by Hezbollah or other hostile groups.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived at Larnaca airport in his military Airbus A310 to pick up 120 evacuees from Lebanon and fly them home.
“I didn’t want to leave because I thought that if there were 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, maybe the Israelis would think twice about what they were hitting,” passenger Catherine Haidar of Orange County, Calif., said after the ship arrived in Larnaca.
Haidar, her husband, Mahmoud, and their four daughters, ages 9-17, had been staying five miles from a bridge connecting Beirut to Damascus and she said their house was shaking from the bombings.
Ann Shebbo, another American passenger on the Orient Queen, said she felt guilty about leaving Lebanon when others had no choice but to remain behind. She left brothers and sisters behind in the Shouf mountains.
“I wanted to leave because of my children. But they have children too,” she said after arriving in Larnaca. “The Lebanese people should not suffer this way.”
Shebbo, who is married to a Lebanese man and now lives in the United Arab Emirates, had been staying in a house near a power plant that was bombed; she said the fuel burned for several days.
Earlier on Wednesday, Lebanese police lined the main coastal road in Beirut as armored SUVs full of security guards escorted buses of Americans from an assembly point to the port to board the ship.
U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman said the evacuation will quickly swell to up to 2,000 Americans a day by sea and helicopter.
“We expect this to go on for the next week until every American who has asked us for help to leave gets to leave,” Feltman said.
About 8,000 of the 25,000 Americans in Lebanon have asked to be evacuated.
Military helicopters flew 200 Americans from the hilltop U.S. Embassy to Larnaca. Chinook helicopters were taking over the task; the helicopters are carry 60 people each, twice as many as the Sea Stallions that have been ferrying out Americans since Sunday.
A Navy task force of nine ships, seven of which were en route late Wednesday, will help with the evacuation. Two more passenger ships chartered by the Navy were due to arrive Friday, giving U.S. authorities the ability to take a total of 2,700 passengers daily, according to the Navy’s Sealift Command spokesman Tim Boulay.
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