US orders nine warships to waters off Lebanon


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

US orders nine warships to waters off Lebanon
by Jim Mannion
Tue Jul 18, 4:14 PM ET

The United States ordered nine warships to waters off the Lebanese coast amid 
fears of possible terrorist attacks on ships evacuating US nationals, officials 

Though only 124 Americans have been brought out so far, the State Department 
defended the speed of the evacuation, calling it "highly organized, very 
efficient, very active."

Six days after the start of hostilities between Israel and Lebanon, the first US
chartered cruise ship arrived in Beirut to pick up US citizens, and the US Navy 
ordered the nine ships to waters off Lebanon.

The vessels, including four amphibious assault ships now in the Red Sea and the 
Indian Ocean, will be used to bring out large numbers of Americans and provide 
security amid fears of terrorist attacks, said Vice Admiral Patrick Walsh, the 
commander of US Fifth Fleet.

"I'm concerned about attacks on ships, you bet," he told reporters here via 
videolink from his headquarters in Bahrain.

Ferries and cruise ships have been able to move freely between Lebanon and 
Cyprus so far, and the US navy has been making arrangements to hire more 
commercial vessels to bring out Americans, officials said.

But Walsh said, "It's prudent not to assume anything when we go into an 
environment like this. So we make all preparations in our planning and 
deliberations so we're ready for any contingency."

"That sort of scenario is something we are planning for," he said.

The first of four amphibious warships is expected to enter the eastern 
Mediterranean on Wednesday and the others will arrive over the course of the 
week, he said.

They include the helicopter carrier USS Iwo Jima, two amphibious dock landing 
ships, and an amphibious transport dock ship.

About 2,200 marines are aboard the Iwo Jima, including a battalion and a medium 
lift helicopter squadron.

Walsh said landing craft and helicopters will be used to move Americans to the 
safety of the amphibious warships which he said can hold about 1,000 people.

A guided missile destroyer, the USS Gonzalez, was already in the area to provide
security, officials said. Other warships were coming from elsewhere in the 
European theater, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, Walsh said.

The Orient Queen, a Greek cruise ship hired Monday, docked in Beirut and was 
boarding Americans, and another chartered vessel with space for 1,400 passengers
was due to arrive Wednesday, Walsh said.

"The threat level presently allows for to us move the ferry back and forth. We 
will take advantage of that to the maximum extent possible," he said.

"But we'll also have warships positioned strategically and tactically in order 
to ensure the safe and secure passage of American citizens from Lebanon to 
Cyprus," he said.

Until now the US evacuation has consisted of a half dozen CH-53 helicopters that
have flown only 124 Americans to safety in Cyprus since Sunday.

Walsh said the mobilization of US naval forces had been ordered earlier but took
time to assemble because of the distances involved, and because the marines 
aboard the amphibious ships were engaged in an exercise in Jordan.

France and Italy already have major evacuations underway. About 900 mostly 
French nationals arrived in Cyprus on Tuesday by chartered ferry from Beirut. An
Italian warship brought out another 300 people Monday.

Democrats wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging that all resources
be made available for a swift evacuation of Americans.

"Reports that American citizens who have been registered with the State 
Department are not being evacuated immediately are enormously troubling," 
Senator Harry Reid, the minority leader, and senior senators Carl Levin and Ted 
Kennedy, said in the letter.

Representative Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record), the top Democrat in the 
House of Representatives, criticized the State Department for demanding that US 
citizens sign agreements to repay their transportation costs.

"I think we moved very fast," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told CNN 

"We're highly organized, very efficient, very active. We're on this one and 
doing a good job," he said.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the United States was in discussions to 
hire four or five other commercial vessels of varying size for the evacuation.

Israel has imposed a naval blockade on Lebanon, and its fighter jets have 
severely damaged Beirut International Airport and struck roads, bridges and 
other infrastructure in retaliation for the Hezbollah missile attacks on 
northern Israel.

The US embassy has discouraged Americans from trying to get out of the country 
by road to Syria, warning of the danger of Israeli airstrikes.

The State Department estimates there are 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, and about 
15,000 of them have registered with the US embassy.

Military officials said helicopters flew out 60 people on Tuesday, 43 on Monday 
and 21 on Sunday. Another 60 passengers were due to fly back later in the day, 
they said.

But the State Department was generally reserving those flights for Americans 
with special needs and will rely instead on chartered vessels for the bulk of 
evacuees, Whitman said.

Copyright © 2006 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved. The information 
contained in the AFP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or 
redistributed without the prior written authority of Agence France Presse.

Copyright © 2006 Yahoo! Inc. All rights reserved.

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