July 17, 2006

US sending ships for Lebanon evacuation duty

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States flew dozens more
U.S. citizens from Lebanon on Monday and contracted a
commercial cruise ship for a possible broader evacuation due to
the conflict with Israel, the Pentagon said on Monday.

The Orient Queen, operated by Lebanon-based Abou Merhi
Cruises, will be available starting on Tuesday to transport
U.S. citizens to Cyprus, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
The ship can hold about 750 people, he said.

"The intent at this point is to use that vessel as a ferry
to Cyprus," Whitman said.

The guided missile destroyer USS Gonzalez will escort the
cruise ship in the Mediterranean, Whitman said. In addition,
the helicopter carrier USS Iwo Jima and other ships have ended
their involvement in exercises with Jordan in the Red Sea, and
could take part in the evacuation mission, he said.

The United States evacuated 43 Americans from Beirut aboard
two CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters after flying 21 out on
Sunday, Whitman said. A special U.S. military team arrived in
Beirut on Sunday to plan for the wider evacuation.

The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon said those evacuated thus far
were people with urgent medical needs, children to be reunited
with their parents, and elderly family members. The embassy
said it was especially worried about Americans in the south of
the country.

Whitman said it is possible the United States will arrange
for additional commercial passenger vessels to take part in an
evacuation. He said three CH-53s, each able to transport 36
people at a time on a one-hour flight to Cyprus, were available
for evacuation operations and more were due to arrive on

"The airlift is not the most efficient way to take out
large numbers," Whitman said.

"So obviously that (cruise ship) gives you the ability to
take out a lot more people at a time."

One-way transit by the Orient Queen from the coast of
Lebanon to Cyprus will take about five hours, he added.

Israel bombarded Lebanon for a sixth day on Monday in the
worst fighting across the Israeli-Lebanese border in more than
two decades.

The State Department has said there are about 25,000
Americans in Lebanon, but a smaller number -- about 8,000 --
had registered with the embassy as living or traveling in

Whitman did not indicate how many people he expected to be

(Additional reporting by Saul Hudson and Kristin Roberts)