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U.S. sending help to evacuate Americans from Lebanon

European nations also acting to get citizens out of country

INFORMATION HOT LINES

U.S. Embassy in Beirut:
(+961) 4-542-600
(+961) 4-543-600

State Department in Washington:
1-202-501-4444
1-888-407-4747 (Call this number toll-free from inside the U.S.)

Americans in Lebanon and family members outside the country can obtain information at www.travel.state.gov

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- The U.S. military is positioning Navy and Marine vessels in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, while the State Department charters airliners and a cruise ship to help in the evacuation of Americans trapped by the conflict in Lebanon, Pentagon officials said Monday.

European nations also are taking actions to evacuate their citizens from the dangers posed by cross-border fighting between the Hezbollah militant group and Israel.

About 25,000 Americans are estimated to be in Lebanon, but it's unknown how many are hoping to leave. (Watch a trapped U.S. student cope in Lebanon -- 1:38)

The State Department has told U.S. citizens to "ready themselves immediately and await further instructions."

The USS Gonzalez, a Navy destroyer, is sailing to provide security for the evacuation mission, but Pentagon officials declined to say when it will arrive in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Israeli navy instituted a blockade of Lebanese ports last week, one of the measures it took after Hezbollah guerrillas abducted two Israeli soldiers. Israel also bombed Beirut's international airport, putting it out of commission and complicating evacuation planning.

Marines have begun loading onto amphibious warships anchored in the Red Sea off Jordan so they can move into position to help in the evacuation effort, the Pentagon said.

The State Department also has chartered the Orient Queen -- a Greek-flagged cruise ship -- in case it is needed to transport Americans, an official said.

Commercial airliners have been chartered to fly Americans from Cyprus to other destinations after they are airlifted from Lebanon, officials said.

Americans who don't have money to pay their way out of Lebanon will be allowed to sign promissory notes to get loans from the U.S. government, officials said.

A U.S. military helicopter was scheduled Monday to remove another few dozen citizens from Beirut to Cyprus, diplomatic officials said.

The day before, 21 Americans were flown to Cyprus, a State Department official said.

The Americans flown out aboard Marine helicopters Sunday included a family of four with a sick child, four students, someone with a medical emergency and a person accompanying the patient, said Maura Harty, assistant secretary for consular affairs.

Over the next few days, Americans first will be sent to Cyprus, Harty said. From there, they will be assisted in finding commercial or charter flights elsewhere, she said.

Three U.S. Marine CH-53 helicopters -- able to carry 36 passengers -- are on the ground in Cyprus, and others are on the way, the Pentagon said.

Those to be evacuated are priority cases, an official said, including people who are ill, the elderly and unaccompanied children.

Europeans send ships, buses

A bus filled with German tourists left a hotel Monday in Beirut, hoping to make it to the Syrian border.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said two ships were on the way to Lebanon to evacuate British citizens. A British helicopter with 40 people on board left Lebanon on Monday en route to Cyprus, according to George Stylianou, a spokesman for the British Embassy.

Those flown out of Lebanon were considered "the most vulnerable," the British Foreign Office said.

France dispatched a ferry from Cyprus late Sunday to help evacuate 1,250 foreign nationals.

According to the French Foreign Ministry, the ship will carry 800 French, including 300 children, and 400 nationals from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Spain, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland. Another 50 spots will be reserved for Americans.

The French will be flown Tuesday from Cyprus to Paris.

An Italian vessel also is expected to dock in the Cypriot port of Larnaca later Monday, carrying evacuees from Beirut, port officials said.

Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said Ottawa is doing "everything possible" to evacuate an estimated 40,000 Canadians in Lebanon. Eight Canadians were reported killed and six more critically wounded Sunday in Lebanon, he said.

The foreign ministry warned Canadians there to remain indoors "and limit your movement as much as possible."

MacKay said his government was working with other countries to line up commercial ships and arrange safe passage through the Israeli blockade.

"We'll be working closely with the British, Americans and French, who have similar challenges as far as their citizens inside Lebanon," he told Canadian broadcaster CTV.

U.S. Embassy urges Americans to register

U.S. officials said they want Americans seeking to leave Lebanon to register through the State Department via its Web site or by calling (888) 407-4747.

Family members outside Lebanon may register relatives stranded in the country who do not have access to the Internet or fax machines or who are having difficulty reaching the U.S. Embassy by phone, the State Department said.

About 800 Americans in Lebanon have registered with the embassy, Harty said. Many of them are dual nationals who make Lebanon their home.

Officials urged Americans to move to safe locations until the State Department notifies them via e-mail or the media that departure plans have been completed.

Harty said officials rejected plans to take U.S. nationals out of Lebanon by land -- something already completed by some European countries -- because it was deemed too dangerous.

Officials added that they have received anecdotal reports that some Americans were denied passage to Syria, even though Damascus had said they would be able to cross the border unimpeded.

State Department official James Jeffrey said an argument against Americans going into Syria was that "there is at least a theoretical possibility" that country could end up being involved in the violence. (Watch people flee danger in Lebanon -- 1:41)

The U.S. Embassy in Beirut will remain fully operational after the evacuation, officials said.

They said the ambassador's office will be open, and political, security and consular services will continue but may be short-staffed. Departures of U.S. personnel would be voluntary, officials said.

CNN's Chris Burns, Elise Labott and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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