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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

US Orders Nine Warships To Waters Off Lebanon

Wed, 19 Jul 2006, 00:12

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

"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.
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