Tuesday, July 18, 2006
U.S. evacuation efforts slowly under way in Lebanon
BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Fewer than 70 of the 25,000 Americans thought to be in war-torn Lebanon had been evacuated from the country by Monday, the U.S. State Department said.
U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern that the evacuations were not proceeding quickly enough as fighting between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah turned parts of Lebanon, including the capital, Beirut, into a war zone.
On Sunday, Marine helicopters carried 21 Americans from Lebanon to the nearby Mediterranean island of Cyprus and another 43 made the trip Monday, the State Department said. (Watch as the first Americans are evacuated -- 1:39)
But Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, defended the government's response time in the wake of the violence.
"We've acted very fast," Burns told CNN's "American Morning" on Tuesday.
"We've had an air bridge from Cyprus to Beirut over the last couple of days. We've taken out elderly people and sick people and children."
The U.S. government has contracted with cruise ships to evacuate Americans, many of them with dual citizenship, Burns said. The U.S. has a ship docked in Beirut, and another one will arrive Tuesday evening to take 900 to 1,000 people, he added.
Military sources said the Greek cruise ship Orient Queen had left Cyprus for Beirut on Tuesday, but it was unclear if it had received clearance to go through an Israeli naval blockade.
The Israeli navy instituted a blockade of Lebanese ports last week, one of the measures it took after Hezbollah guerrillas abducted two Israeli soldiers. Israel also bombed Beirut's international airport, putting it out of commission and complicating evacuation planning.
"We also have U.S. military assets in the region to provide protection for those commercial ships that carry Americans," Burns said.
Burns called evacuation preparations "very well thought out, methodical and highly prepared" and said 15,000 Americans had registered with the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
Burns attributed the small number of evacuees so far to the fact that many Americans have dual citizenship and are not under mandatory evacuation orders. (Watch a trapped U.S. student cope in Lebanon -- 1:38)
"People go out when they want to go out," he said.
Americans who don't have money to pay their way out of Lebanon will be allowed to sign promissory notes to receive loans from the government, U.S. officials said.
Burns said, "We also have U.S. military assets in the region to provide protection for those commercial ships that carry Americans."
Iwo Jima group to help
The Iwo Jima expeditionary group is heading to the Mediterranean from the Red Sea to help with the evacuations of Americans, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
The USS Gonzalez, a Navy destroyer, is sailing to provide security for the evacuation mission, but Pentagon officials declined to say when it will arrive in the eastern Mediterranean.
In addition to ships, airlines are being chartered, and Marine helicopters have ferried evacuees as well, Pentagon officials have said.
Other Western nations also have moved to get their citizens to safety by land, sea and air.
On Monday, an Italian vessel and a France-dispatched ferry arrived in Cyprus, carrying evacuees.
In addition to about 800 French citizens, the latter ship carried about 400 nationals from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Spain, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.
An estimated 40,000 Canadians are thought to be in Lebanon, and Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said Ottawa is doing "everything possible" to evacuate them. Eight Canadians were reported killed and six more critically wounded Sunday in Lebanon, MacKay said.
Democratic senators urge quick action
Concern for Americans stranded in Lebanon prompted Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts to send a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asking for quick action.
In the letter, the three Democratic senators said reports indicated the evacuations were not happening quickly enough and urged the two officials to make available all necessary resources "to address this unfolding crisis."
"Given the intensity of the conflict and the need to ensure the safety of American citizens, we would ask that the decision to evacuate Americans be made at once, and that sufficient resources to expedite the evacuation be made available," the senators wrote. "Ensuring the safety of these Americans must be our top priority."
A similar concern was partly behind Sen. John Warner's move to block temporarily a resolution backing Israel's campaign against Hezbollah and Hamas, the Islamic militant organization that leads the Palestinian government.
Warner, R-Virginia, warned colleagues that the conflict's possible impact on the war in Iraq and negotiations over Iran's nuclear program requires more debate.
"This is a very critical time for the United States in the Middle East, and the Israeli actions will certainly have an impact beyond just Lebanon and Gaza," he said.
Warner noted that the resolution made no mention of Americans in Lebanon.
"How best do we address this conflict to help protect those 25,000 Americans? That, to me, is an essential part of this debate," he said.