By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, July 18, 2006 – While U.S. authorities in Cyprus are expecting to evacuate at least 5,000 Americans from Lebanon, they are preparing for any contingency, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command said today. Navy Vice Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, who also commands the U.S. 5th Fleet, briefed Pentagon reporters from his headquarters in Bahrain.
Nine U.S. Navy ships are converging on Lebanon from U.S. Central Command and from U.S. European Command. The European Command ships are arriving in the "joint operating area" already, Walsh said. The CENTCOM ships are expected over the next few days. DoD also has contracted with the Greek-flagged Orient Queen to evacuate Americans from the Lebanese capital. The ship is pierside in Beirut, Walsh said, and it will take on passengers overnight and leave for Cyprus in the morning. He said he anticipates the vessel will carry between 800 and 1,000 Americans to safety.
The admiral said two more ships will be part of the ferrying activity between Beirut and Cyprus. The Rahmah will arrive in Cyrus tomorrow and begin ferrying refugees shortly thereafter. That vessel has a capacity of around 1,400. The trip to Cyprus from Beirut lasts about five hours, DoD officials said. The United States also is working with European nations that are evacuating their nationals from Lebanon. Walsh said Navy ships from the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy are operating in the waters off Lebanon. He said the non-combatant evacuation process "is a complex operation that involves an extraordinary level of effort."
"We're sending the very best we have, and we will move at max speed," he added. The admiral said he expects U.S. Navy vessels, especially large-capacity amphibious ships, to participate in the evacuation. Amphibious ships are designed to conduct beach landings. They're frequently used for humanitarian operations and disaster relief.
Right now, the threat level in Beirut allows the Navy to ferry Americans to Cyprus with the commercial vessels. "But part of our job is to plan for any contingency," he said. "We will have warships positioned strategically and tactically to ensure the safe and secure passage of Americans from Lebanon to Cyprus."
Naval Forces Central Command is prepared for any contingency and ready for operations over an extended period of time, Walsh said. Walsh said using amphibious ships will allow officials to move the evacuation process to the north or south and provide more options for evacuating people if the situation at the port deteriorates. Pentagon officials said the amphibious capability would allow the task force to evacuate people across the beach if needed.
"We have a changing situation (in Lebanon)," Walsh said. "We have a very complex environment that we're about to put a substantial number more of American citizens into, and the security and safety of those people are paramount to us and that's our No. 1 mission."