By Gerry J. Gilmore
WASHINGTON, July 17, 2006 – The United States has contracted a commercial ship to assist in a possible mass evacuation of Americans from Lebanon, a Defense Department spokesman said here today. The cruise ship Orient Queen is expected to arrive in the area of operations sometime tomorrow, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. The ship can accommodate hundreds of passengers and may be used to ferry U.S. evacuees from the port of Beirut to the island of Cyprus.
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Gonzalez has been tasked to escort the Orient Queen as a force-protection measure, Whitman said. A number of options, including the use of commercial ships as well as military vessels, are being considered as means of evacuating U.S. citizens from Lebanon, Navy Lt. Jereal Dorsey, a spokesman for Task Force 59, based on Cyprus, said.
Marine Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen is commanding the task force, which is leading joint U.S. military coordination efforts for Lebanon evacuations, Dorsey said. Cyprus is about 120 nautical miles, or 138 land (statute) miles, from Lebanon, he said. The U.S. State Department estimated that about 5,000 Americans in Lebanon have requested possible evacuation. About 25,000 U.S. citizens, many with dual U.S.-Lebanese citizenship, live or work in Lebanon.
Today, 42 Americans were flown out of Lebanon to Cyprus, Dorsey said. Two CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopters belonging to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit took part in the operation. About 21 Americans, some with illnesses, were flown out of Lebanon yesterday. The State Department has posted a message on its Web site directed to Americans living in Lebanon. The message says the State and Defense departments continue to work plans to assist Americans in making a safe and orderly departure from Lebanon.
A U.S. military team from U.S. Central Command arrived in Lebanon yesterday to help with evacuation planning. "The United States military is a formidable and flexible force that demonstrates that it has a wide range of capabilities, and being able to evacuate civilians from a combat zone is just another one of those indications that it is a versatile force, a flexible force and a very capable force," Whitman said.
Meanwhile, Britain, France and other countries also are taking steps to evacuate their citizens from Lebanon. Residents of Beirut, the Lebanese capital, continued their exodus today as Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas traded trans-border rocket fire. Hezbollah is a terror group that has vowed to destroy Israel and is said to obtain funding from Syria and Iran. The United Nations is working to establish a cease-fire. The fighting began after Hezbollah operatives seized two Israeli soldiers on July 12.