U.S. stepping up Lebanon evacuation
Hundreds of evacuees arrive early Thursday in Cyprus
INFORMATION HOT LINES
U.S. Embassy in Beirut:
State Department in Washington:
(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
These ships carrying evacuees from Lebanon were expected in Cyprus:
Wednesday: Alkyon, 900 evacuees, Danish and EU
Wednesday: Kriti 2nd, 1,600 evacuees, mainly Scandinavian
Wednesday: Jean de Dieu, 500 evacuees, mainly French
Wednesday: Serenade, 800 evacuees, U.N. charter
Wednesday: Ikaria, 1,200 evacuees, Belgian
Wednesday: Ierapetra, 1,250 evacuees, French
Wednesday: Blue Dawn, 220 evacuees, mainly Canadian and U.S.
Thursday: Orient Queen, 800-1,000 evacuees, mainly U.S. and UK
Thursday: USS Nashville, 1,000 evacuees per day, mainly U.S.
Source: Larnaca Port Authority
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(CNN) -- The United States brought in more sea and air assets to widen the bottleneck keeping thousands of Americans in war-torn Lebanon on Wednesday, a week after violence erupted.
About 1,200 U.S. citizens left Beirut for Cyprus on Wednesday, the State Department and military said.
That tally is a significant jump from the 450 or so who had earlier managed to flee the fighting that broke out between Israel and Hezbollah militants July 12.
The State Department estimates there are about 25,000 Americans in Lebanon.
Most of the 1,200 evacuees left aboard the 1,000-capacity Greek cruise ship Orient Queen, the first of several chartered ships and military vessels that will form a sea bridge to Cyprus. It arrived in the Cypriot port of Larnaca early Thursday. (Watch as Cyprus is once again a refuge -- 1:50)
"We expect [the Orient Queen] to be a stalwart over the next couple of days," running between Beirut and Larnaca, said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, at a news conference Wednesday.
Two more civilian ships are scheduled to arrive Friday in Beirut: the Saudi-owned, Panamanian-flagged Ramah, with a capacity of 1,000-1,400; and the Vittoria M., an Italian vessel that can carry about 330.
The first charter flight from Cyprus is due to land at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport early Thursday. Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich said about 200 U.S. evacuees are expected on that flight, and about 800 are to arrive by Saturday.
A U.S. Navy task force is due to arrive off Lebanon on Thursday, with the transport ship USS Nashville capable of ferrying up to 1,000 evacuees per day, according to Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero, deputy director for regional operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Watch why the Navy isn't taking any chances with securing the evacuations -- 1:45)
Six transport helicopters are also carrying those evacuees in the most need -- such as urgent medical cases and children -- the approximately 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut to Cyprus.
Harty again urged Americans in Lebanon and those with family there to contact the embassy or the department to register for evacuation. She said although people who show up on the Beirut docks without being registered will be put on ships, registering ahead will guarantee a berth.
No plans have been made yet for the several hundred Americans in southern Lebanon, where fighting has been fiercest and Israeli troops entered Tuesday.
Harty said the State Department will move them when it's "safe and prudent ... we're always going to err on the side of caution," she said.
A senior defense official told CNN on Wednesday that the military is considering using teams of Marines aboard helicopters to extract Americans who are stuck in remote parts of Lebanon. The official stressed that the plan is merely one option and that nothing has been decided.
Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh, commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, told CNN that one reason he is moving the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit to Lebanon is to give him the ability to get Americans out of other parts of Lebanon, if necessary.
"The idea is that we have the capability to extract people, no matter where their location is," Walsh said.
Barbero said the on-scene commander will have "absolute flexibility to execute his mission in a very dynamic situation."
Missions into remote parts of Lebanon could entail flying over areas held by Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
Earlier Wednesday, dozens of U.S. college students who endured an 11-hour voyage on a crowded Norwegian-chartered car ferry arrived in Cyprus. (Watch a student describe her ordeal -- 2:34)
Ashley Marinaccio, 20, a college student from Long Branch, New Jersey, said the ferry was like a "floating refugee camp" with "tons of flies," few places to sit or sleep, five toilets, a shortage of toilet paper and several ill passengers.
"It got really dirty," Marinaccio said.
"We knew that it would be over, and we were going to safety, so it was all we thought about."
The ship carried 1,100 Europeans -- but also made room for 127 U.S. citizens, including the students and several American families.
Marinaccio said it was "really disappointing" when the U.S. Embassy earlier had told students "we're assessing the situation" while others from the Netherlands, Switzerland and France had been evacuated three days earlier.
But Marinaccio said she was pleased the U.S. government had provided food for Americans aboard her ferry, though she said it disturbed her that others were hungry and there wasn't enough to go around.
U.S. Navy SEALs pulled alongside the ferry to deliver boxes of chicken sandwiches, she said.
"It was for American citizens only, and that actually made a big stink on the boat, because people who weren't American citizens were trying to get the food," Marinaccio said. "Other people were screaming, 'It's for Americans only, show your passport.' "
Evacuation effort defended
Some lawmakers and relatives with family members stranded in Lebanon have complained that the State Department is moving too slowly to evacuate Americans.
Barbero disputed that criticism Wednesday, saying at the news conference that the military had few assets off the coast of Lebanon when the crisis erupted, and that the Marines aboard the Nashville had to be pulled from an exercise in Jordan.
"We started moving assets as soon as we heard that a need had been established," he said. "These are our fellow Americans, and we're going to do everything possible, and we have."
The violence presents its own set of difficulties, he said. Military planners are trying to balance speed, safety and security, and there is little room for error.
"This is a war zone, and we have to get it right the first time," he said. "We're not going to rush to failure. It's a balance, and we think we're achieving the right balance."
In addition to frustrations at the pace of U.S. evacuations, others, especially Democratic lawmakers, expressed outrage that evacuees initially were going to have to pay to leave.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ended the controversy Tuesday night, using her authority under the law to waive the fees people would have paid to the government.
Stranded in war-torn country
Several Americans in Lebanon also wrote e-mails to CNN, expressing their frustration with the evacuation process.
Natalie Kerlakian of Denver, Colorado, wrote that she had not heard from the embassy in a week.
"I hope this response will be better than that of Katrina," she wrote, referring to heavily criticized government action in the wake of the hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast in August. (Read another family's story)
Harty, the assistant secretary of state, acknowledged reports of problems reaching the hot lines set up in Washington and by the embassy.
"I have to say with all sincerity, it's worth waiting for," she said. "If you've made that call, please wait on the line, and I'm going to do everything I can to make that wait as short as possible."
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