Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story contained an incorrect telephone number. The correct number for Americans in the United States seeking information about the evacuation is 888-407-4747. Americans outside the country may call 202-501-4444.

Americans Took Evacuation Into Their Own Hands

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 20, 2006

Shayna Silverstein and her friends jumped into expensive taxis and sped from Beirut to Damascus, preferring to dodge bombs and bribe border officials rather than wait for the U.S. government to evacuate them.

Ann Ainslay Chibbo said she desperately phoned friends back home, urging them to contact the State Department to get her name onto an evacuation list. She said she couldn't get through by phone to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

The U.S. government evacuated hundreds of Americans from Lebanon yesterday by ships, helicopters and planes, the start of what officials said would become a massive effort to remove thousands of U.S. citizens to safety and, then, back home. The first 150 evacuees are scheduled to arrive at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport this morning.

But the evacuations come amid growing criticism that the United States has lagged behind other nations in evacuating its citizens, as many Americans were left to flee the violence by their own means.

"'What's my government doing for me?' I thought," said Silverstein, 27, a graduate student who returned to her home in Spokane, Wash., on Tuesday. "It's unacceptable that the United States is five days behind European nations in evacuating its nationals."

At the State Department, U.S. officials defended the speed of the evacuation, saying they had to balance swiftness with prudence. "We are always going to err on the side of caution," said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. "It is a volatile situation."

Army Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero, deputy director for regional operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined Harty at the news conference added, "We are not going to sacrifice either safety or security to achieve speed in getting American citizens evacuated."

He insisted that the U.S. evacuation effort isn't lagging behind those of other countries, such as Canada, and that U.S. officials are working with a sense of urgency. But, he said, "this is a war zone," in which careful coordination and planning are needed. "We are not going to rush to failure."

About 1,000 U.S. citizens were moved out of Lebanon to Cyprus yesterday aboard the Orient Queen, a chartered ship, Harty said, with a few hundred more people with special needs moved by helicopter.

In addition, Barbero said, a Navy ship, the USS Nashville, is in the area and can move out about 1,000 people a day. A large ferry called the Ramah will join the effort tomorrow, and a high-speed Italian ferry, the Vittoria, will begin operating Saturday, he said. Three other Navy ships -- two destroyers and a command vessel -- can aid the rescue mission, he said.

By the end of this week, more than 6,000 Americans are likely to be evacuated, Marine Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, the commander overseeing the evacuation, told reporters in Cyprus.

About 700 to 800 evacuees on five flights are scheduled to land at BWI over the next three days, said Jeff Welsh, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

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