By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, July 19, 2006 – U.S. evacuation capacity in Lebanon will double each day for the next few days, a senior defense official said here today. Yesterday, between 250 and 300 Americans left Lebanon in the face of fighting between Israel and the terrorist group Hezbollah. U.S. military helicopters airlifted 120 U.S. citizens to Cyprus, while another 150 to 200 citizens left the country aboard a Norwegian vessel.
This morning, the Defense Department-chartered Greek motor vessel Orient Queen left the pier in Beirut carrying about 900 U.S. citizens. The Navy amphibious ship USS Nashville has arrived in Cyprus and will join evacuation efforts tomorrow, the official said. This will increase the evacuation capacity to 2,000 people per day. The arrival of other craft - including other Navy ships and another contract vessel, the Rahmah - will boost the capacity to 4,000 per day by July 21.
Two destroyers - the USS Gonzalez and the USS Barry - are operating today in the area. The ships are providing protection for contract carriers and other U.S. warships. "Committed to the operation, but not yet directly involved in the operation, is the Iwo Jima, Whidbey Island, Trenton and HSV-Swift," the senior official said. "They are committed; we will see if they are needed or not."
The evacuation is a complex operation involving DoD and State Department personnel. The State Department directs the effort and collects the data from Americans who wish to leave the country. The paramount mission for the U.S. government is the safety of Americans who wish to evacuate, officials said. "Our goal is to continue to have excess capacity to what is required by the State Department," the DoD official said. A "permissive" threat environment exists in Beirut right now, officials said, adding that they continue to monitor the situation very closely and are prepared for any contingency.
The Marines aboard the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group bring a capability that will ensure the safety of American citizens in the evacuation. The sailors and Marines aboard the ships have rehearsed non-combatant evacuation procedures as a part of the typical training before a deployment, said Marine officials here.
Once the evacuees arrive in Cyprus, they become the responsibility of the State Department, which documents them and helps them find a way back to the United States. The military has "rudimentary" medical facilities available in case of need, the official said. The operation is under the command of Marine Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, the commander of Task Force 59. It is based in Cyprus.