By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, July 18, 2006 – A contracted ship has docked in Lebanon to evacuate U.S. citizens caught in the fighting there, and U.S. officials have ordered the expeditionary strike group based around the USS Iwo Jima to assist in the effort, DoD officials said here today. DoD contracted a Greek ocean liner, the Orient Queen, to evacuate American citizens from Beirut, and that vessel has docked, a senior DoD official told reporters.
The liner can hold up to 750 people for the five-hour voyage to Cyprus, an island nation in the western Mediterranean. In addition, six CH-53 helicopters -- three from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and three from U.S. forces based in the United Kingdom -- are evacuating Americans citizens from the American embassy compound in Beirut. The air evacuation is aimed at citizens with special needs. The helicopters deliver the refugees to Cyprus. DoD is building to a capacity of 300 people evacuated by air per day. "We will increase that number if needed," the official said.
The destroyer USS Gonzalez is providing security for the Orient Queen, officials said. The official said DoD is finalizing contracts with up to four other vessels with capacities ranging from 200 to 300 people to over 1,000. State and defense officials did not specify the number of Americans that U.S. forces would evacuate from Lebanon, saying they will evacuate however many Americans want to leave the country. There are around 25,000 American citizens in Lebanon, but not all will want to leave the country, an official said. "It could be 5,000 (who want to leave); it could be 10,000," a State Department spokesman said. If fighting intensifies between Israel and Hezbollah, more Americans may wish to escape the battle, officials said.
The headquarters of Task Force 59, commanded by Marine Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, is directing the evacuation operation from Cyprus. The Iwo Jima group, which includes the Iwo Jima, the USS Nashville, the USS Whidbey Island, the USS Trenton, and the High Speed Vessel Swift, will arrive off Lebanon later this week. The contracted carriers and the U.S. Navy ships will have more than enough capacity to evacuate anyone who wishes to leave, the senior Defense official said