- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

LARNACA, Cyprus — The Orient Queen, a U.S.-chartered ship with more than 1,000 Americans aboard, arrived at dawn today at this Cypriot port city in the first wave of a massive evacuation by the United States and other nations after a week of Israeli air strikes across Lebanon.

As the Americans prepared to depart from war-torn Beirut, they gathered on the top deck shouting “Goodbye, Lebanon.” The luxury cruise ship then steamed away from Beirut, with U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman waving from the dock.

“We expect this to go on for the next week until every American who has asked us for help to leave gets to leave,” Mr. Feltman told the Associated Press.

It was the first mass U.S. evacuation from Lebanon since Israeli air strikes started more than a week ago. An additional 200 Americans were ferried out yesterday in helicopters and another vessel.

Denmark evacuated more than 4,000 of its citizens, and Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Germany and India were among nations either evacuating citizens or preparing to do so.

As the planned removal of Westerners grew to staggering proportions, Cyprus appealed for a swifter international response to the evacuation crisis in Lebanon, warning that it would be unable to cope with the thousands fleeing the neighboring country if numbers build up.

“Many countries are seeking our help. We are talking about [assisting] 60,000 to 70,000 people. It’s humanly impossible,” Foreign Minister George Lillikas told Reuters news agency.

On the Beirut docks, there were angry scenes as Westerners battled for places for their loved ones, while swamped embassy staff tried to calm growing tensions.

Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen told reporters in Cyprus that about 3,000 U.S. citizens will have been rescued by nightfall today and about 6,000 by tomorrow.

Gen. Jensen, in charge of the operation, described it as an intricate effort involving the U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force and the Marine Corps and the cooperation of Cyprus, Israel and several other nations.

Warships, landing craft and helicopters are being used, he said.

“This is not, in any shape or form, an evacuation. We are not abandoning Lebanon, just facilitating voluntary departure of U.S. citizens. The U.S. Embassy will remain in Beirut to assist all those who stay,” Gen. Jensen said.

Speaking beside Gen. Jensen at Larnaca airport, Jane Zimmerman, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Cyprus, said everything is being done to avoid overcrowding in the Greek-speaking island, divided since 1974.

“The evacuees will stay only a short time in Cyprus, and plans are being made for charter planes to fly them home to the United States,” she said.

The government of Cyprus said it had begun a major effort to support the evacuation.

“We are making every effort possible to help U.S. citizens as well as citizens of other nations,” said Euripides L. Evriviades, Cyprus’ ambassador to the United States.

An estimated 25,000 Americans are in Lebanon.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has been traveling in Europe, diverted his plane to Cyprus yesterday to pick up some Canadians.

Aides said his Canadian Forces Airbus could carry about 100 to 120 of the 350 Canadian evacuees currently en route from Beirut.

A number of arriving Americans have found accommodation in hotels despite the summer tourist season.

There was some confusion about plans for U.S. citizens with dual nationality who have been longtime residents of Lebanon and who do not have a home in the United States.

However, officials made clear that only a short stay on this Mediterranean island is envisaged.

They said it was likely that most of those hoping to leave will have left Lebanon by the end of the week and that the flow will diminish considerably.

To protect the evacuation process, the United States has planned a task force of four warships with 1,200 Marines aboard.

Seamen arriving from Beirut quoted an American student who was unable to get on board as saying: “I am freaked out that our government is treating us this way. Are we a Third World country or what?”

Among other ships that docked in Cyprus late Tuesday was the British warship Gloucester with 180 “priority cases.” Israeli planes suspended raids while the ship loaded its passengers.

At dawn yesterday, the Norwegian Hual Transporter brought 126 Americans, 813 Swedes, 116 Norwegians and a handful of other nationals.

U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus Ronald Schlicher was on hand with 40 Marines stationed at a nearby British base helping the evacuees.

At the British Akrotiri base, where temporary quarters were prepared and tents were erected, officials said they planned to ship people out as fast as possible.

“We don’t want hundreds of people here overnight,” a base spokesman said. “We are working to book charter flights out of Cyprus hoping that those arriving Wednesday will be in the United Kingdom by the end of the day.”

Six British warships are participating in the rescue operation and planning to bring out 5,000 Britons from Lebanon by the end of the week.

The U.S. State Department said that it had dropped a plan to make Americans reimburse the government for the transport, but that others were asked to sign promissory notes to pay for the trip before they could leave.

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