Correction to This Article
A July 18 article misidentified the unit commanded by Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, who leads a task force coordinating the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Lebanon. Jensen is the commander of Expeditionary Strike Group Three, not the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

U.S. Prepares Huge Lebanon Evacuation

Daniel Pierret, 6, hugs grandfather Mohammed Soubra as mother Sawsan cries before she and her son were evacuated from Beirut with hundreds of other French citizens.
Daniel Pierret, 6, hugs grandfather Mohammed Soubra as mother Sawsan cries before she and her son were evacuated from Beirut with hundreds of other French citizens. (By Kevork Djansezian -- Associated Press)
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

U.S. Marine Corps helicopters ferried 42 Americans to safety at a British air base in Cyprus yesterday as officials moved closer to a massive evacuation of thousands of U.S. citizens from besieged Lebanon.

The military began discussing plans to move an expeditionary strike group that includes 2,200 Marines to the Mediterranean Sea and hired a private cruise ship to take evacuees from Beirut to Cyprus, possibly as soon as today, U.S. officials said. The State Department advised U.S. citizens to avoid individual evacuations via increasingly dangerous Lebanese roads and border crossings with Syria.

Marine CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters evacuated about 65 people from Lebanon on Sunday and yesterday, and 50 more Americans were set to arrive in Cyprus early this morning on a French ship, according to State and Defense department officials.

As the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel has intensified, U.S. officials have begun what could become the largest evacuation since Americans exited Liberia a decade ago. State Department officials estimated that roughly 25,000 Americans are in Lebanon, 15,000 of whom had registered with the embassy by yesterday.

But the United States appeared to lag behind several other countries that have already evacuated hundreds of their citizens in the wake of the Israeli attacks. Some nations rented buses and sent people by road into Syria and on to Jordan, a route U.S. officials have deemed too dangerous.

Italy and France have evacuated more than 1,000 people between them, while Denmark has started evacuating 2,300 of its citizens and Sweden 850, according to the Associated Press.

Britain has managed a few evacuations, with helicopters landing near Beirut to take a few dozen passengers away yesterday and warships heading to Lebanon to take hundreds more in coming days. Syrian officials have estimated that tens of thousands of people have fled over their border in the past week.

The U.S. Embassy in Beirut yesterday sent messages to U.S. citizens there that it is monitoring the situation closely and is "reviewing all options for assisting Americans who wish to depart Lebanon." Because Beirut's international airport was closed after it was severely damaged by Israeli attacks, U.S. officials were relying on helicopters and ships as potential major evacuation methods.

Tom Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Cyprus, said authorities there are planning on 2,500 to 6,000 U.S. evacuees arriving over the next few days. With Cyprus at the height of its tourist season and few hotel rooms available, Miller said embassy officials hope to use school dormitories and a local fairground to house them while arranging their return to the United States on commercial airlines.

"It's going to be fairly large-scale," said Miller, who anticipated logjams at airports in Cyprus.

The State Department urged U.S. citizens to remain in safe locations, advising against the drive to Damascus.

"Americans who attempt such crossings are advised to exercise great caution when traveling on major roads as they are subject to an air strike at any time," read the State Department statement to U.S. citizens in Lebanon. Israeli bombs over the past few days have targeted the roads leading to Syria.

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