WASHINGTON, July 16, 2006 – A U.S. military team is now in Lebanon evaluating the possibility of evacuating thousands of American citizens there, a Defense Department spokesman said here today. "There was an operation this morning involving some U.S. service members to evacuate a small number of people from Lebanon at the request of the U.S. Embassy there," Army Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a Pentagon spokesman, said.
A survey and assessment team from U.S. Central Command is now in Lebanon, Ballesteros said. The team is "planning with the (U.S.) Department of State there for the way ahead," he said. News reports say about 20 Americans - some with illnesses - had been evacuated from Lebanon today. An estimated 25,000 Americans live or work in Lebanon.
The State Department has posted a message on its Web site directed to Americans living in Lebanon. It reads: "A message to American citizens in Lebanon: The U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Defense continue working on a plan to help American citizens who wish to depart Lebanon to leave in a secure and orderly manner. To assist in the development of that operation, the U.S. government is sending an assessment team to Beirut to facilitate the safe departure of Americans who wish to leave."
The Embassy remains open to support U.S. citizens in Lebanon, the Web site said. It directs U.S. citizens in Lebanon to register by contacting the Embassy in Beirut directly, or through the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs registration site. The Web site listed two contact telephone numbers: 800-407-4747 inside the United States and 202-501-4444 from overseas.
Beirut residents were fleeing the Lebanese capital today as Israeli forces and Hezbollah terrorists continued to trade trans-border rocket fire. Hezbollah is a terror group that's pledged to destroy Israel and is said to receive funding from Syria and Iran. The United Nations is trying to broker a cease-fire. The fighting was precipitated by Hezbollah's seizure of two Israeli soldiers on July 12.
The G8 leaders meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, issued a statement today expressing "deepening concern" about the deteriorating situation in the Middle East and vowed to work together to restore peace. "These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict," they said. "The extremists must immediately halt their attacks." The leaders affirmed Israel's right to defend itself but urged it to exercise restraint to minimize civilian casualties.