By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, July 20, 2006 – The USS Nashville has joined the fleet of ships evacuating U.S. citizens from Lebanon, defense officials said today. The Nashville, a dock landing ship, arrived in the joint operating area off Beirut yesterday, and landing craft began ferrying refugees from Beirut to the ship. The ship will deliver the citizens to safe haven in Cyprus--about eight hours away by ship--later today, officials said.
DoD officials expect the ship to carry 1,200 evacuees. State Department officials said the operation will continue until all Americans who wish to leave the country have done so. State Department and Defense personnel have evacuated more than 1,600 American citizens from Lebanon since the operation began July 16. Ships and aircraft transported 1,200 citizens out of Lebanon to Cyprus yesterday. Of these, 161 "special needs" Americans left via choppers, and 1,066 sailed on the Orient Queen. DoD chartered the Greek-owned vessel for the operation.
In addition to the USS Nashville, the Saudi-owned, Panamanian-flagged Rahmah, with a capacity of 1,400 passengers, arrived in the region and will begin ferrying U.S. citizens to Cyprus tomorrow. The Italian ship Vittoria, with a capacity of around 330 passengers, also will begin operations in the next few days. DoD officials said five more U.S. Navy ships will arrive at the scene in the next few days. The USS Iwo Jima will join the operation July 22. Officials expect to move around 4,000 evacuees tomorrow.
Some 300 to 500 Americans are caught in fighting between the terrorist group Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon, DoD officials said. Hezbollah continues to fire missiles into northern Israel, and Israelis are replying with artillery and air strikes. "Things are, in fact, quite volatile out of southern Lebanon right now. We do have several groups of people ... that have congregated and are ready to move," Mara Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said yesterday. "We would like to be able to move them through the country, up north, and put them on ships and get them out of harm's way.
"The decision was taken, given conditions on the ground, that they would not yet move, so they are in a holding pattern until such time as we think it is appropriate and safe and prudent to move them forward." Harty and DoD officials stressed that any evacuation must be done in a safe and orderly manner. Once all U.S. Navy ships to participate in the operation are on scene, officials will have the capacity to evacuate at least 6,000 U.S. citizens per day. The last Navy ship will arrive July 23