By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, July 20, 2006 – A total of 341 Americans successfully convoyed out of southern Lebanon and are shipping out of Beirut harbor for Cyprus, State Department officials said today. Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said the bus convoy got the Americans to the harbor, where they are boarding the Orient Queen cruise ship. They are among the 2,250 Americans that left Lebanon today.
"That brings the total of assisted departures to 3,850, and there are another 400 people our embassy in Damascus has confirmed have made it out by land to Syria," Harty said during a news conference at the State Department. Army Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero, the Joint Staff's deputy for operations, also briefed. The Hezbollah terrorist group fired more rockets into Israel, and Israeli air and artillery response continues. United Nations officials said that more than 300 Lebanese and 29 Israelis have been killed in the fighting to date.
Cyprus is expecting an influx of 60,000 evacuees, and that number will quickly overwhelm facilities on the island, Cypriot officials said. U.S. officials are ramping up operations at Mersin, Turkey, to handle additional evacuees from Lebanon. Mersin is on the coast of Turkey, about 200 miles north of Cyprus. "Our mission in Turkey is prepared to use the port of Mercin as an overflow reception center for American citizens choosing to depart Lebanon," Harty said. "Travelers will be bused to Incirlik Air Base for onward travel to the United States. The first passengers in this phase of the operation will likely arrive there (July 22)."
Naval and air assets will continue to evacuate refugees until the mission is completed, Harty said. Vessels currently engaged in the evacuation operation are the USS Nashville and the Orient Queen, Barbero said. "The passenger ship Ramah and Vittoria, and other Navy ships will join the flow as they arrive in the area in the next few days," Barbero said. "The Ramah is a Panamanian-flagged Saudi-owned ship with a capacity of 1,400 passengers; we expect her to start tomorrow," he said. The high-speed vessel Vittoria, an Italian-flagged ship with a capacity of approximately 330 passengers, should begin moving passengers July 22.
U.S. military CH-53 helicopters continue flights between Lebanon and Cyprus. Barbero said the USS Nashville is under way with more than 1,000 evacuees on board. The destroyers USS Gonzalez and USS Barry continue force protection patrols, and the USS Mount Whitney, a command and control ship, has begun operations in the joint operating area off Beirut. "Four more U.S. Navy ships are expected in the area over the coming days; most will be arriving within the next 24 hours," Barbero said.
More than 250 military personnel are in Cyrus providing command and control, security, medical support, and support to helicopter operations and C-130 aircraft operations." Over 60 military personnel are at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut," Barbero said. "They are providing command and control, logistics planning and a small security detachmen