Americans Escape Lebanon By Sea

The U.S. begins a major evacuation of its citizens from Lebanon. Up to a thousand will leave daily aboard a chartered vessel, under the protection of a U.S. warship.

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The United States has joined with several other nations, in a massive evacuation of foreigners from Lebanon. Several military vessels, along with cruise ships and helicopters are participating in the evacuation, which involves thousands of people.

NPR's JJ Sutherland reports from Beirut, on the first group of Americans departing the country.

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JJ SUTHERLAND reporting:

Hundreds of people are gathering on Beirut's docks today, hoping to get out of the country. Many of them are people on vacation, or they were visiting their families, and some on business. But they all feel trapped in a country they now want desperately to leave.

Bill Shwar(ph) is an attorney from Detroit. On the day he was supposed to leave, the Israelis bombed the airport.

Mr. BILL SHWAR (Attorney, United States): We were expecting to leave a week ago. The people here have been wonderful to us, very hospitable. It's just time to go home.

SUTHERLAND: Schwar got out yesterday on the Hual transporter, a humongous cargo ship, capable of carrying 1,200 people. That's how many lifejackets they had. The destination was Cyprus, about 60 miles away.

Israel has imposed a sea blockade around Lebanon, but it seems to be granting safe passage to evacuation ships. But that doesn't mean that they don't have to hit a window.

Unidentified Woman: You guys need to move very slowly, please. One at a time, okay? Okay, go.

SUTHERLAND: It was largely Swedes and Norwegians on the boat, but a few hundreds Americans made it on board, most of them students, studying at local universities.

One of them is Tara Hess(ph), from Butler, Ohio. She was here studying Arabic. She says the uncertainty can be worse than the bombs.

Ms. TARA HESS (American Student in Lebanon): You're just waiting, honestly. You're waiting to see if it gets any better or you're waiting to see if you get out. That's probably the worst thing about it, cause you're just twiddling your thumbs, you know? You don't, you don't know what to do and your plans keep changing. That sucks.

SUTHERLAND: The American students unloaded from the buses, boys from one, girls from another, and are herded into single file lines, as they pass a state department official who checks their papers.

Unidentified Woman: Okay, Heather, good luck. Take care, guys. Okay, Tara, great. Good luck. Take care. Bye.

SUTHERLAND: As the last of the Americans walks up the gangplank to the ship, a convoy of four SUVs whips through the docks and pulls up. Men with close-cropped hair, body armor, and weapons, jumped out of the vehicles and quickly cleared a path to the ship. The U.S. ambassador had arrived.

Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman says, the U.S. is prepared to evacuate thousands of Americans from Lebanon.

Ambassador JEFFREY FELTMAN (United States Ambassador to Lebanon): We have had somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 phone calls, but some of those are repeats. So how many people are actually on our manifest lists, I'm not sure. It's - yes, it's several thousand.

SUTHERLAND: The embassy has come under some criticism. People say the U.S. has moved too slowly to get people out. Only a few hundred Americans have been able to leave in the past few days. But the ambassador says that will change today, when more than 1,000 people will be taken to Cyprus.

The Navy has also deployed warships to the region to help with the evacuation, and commercial vessels are expected to be used, as well.

There are an estimated 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, and the ambassador said the evacuation will go on for as long as it takes.

Amb. FELTMAN: We will continue facilitating Americans to leave as long as we need to do so, as long as there's a demand, as long as the conditions are such that they are relying on us to help them leave.

SUTHERLAND: Other embassies have also been coordinating the evacuation of their citizens. Besides the large American presence, there are tens of thousands of British and Canadians in Lebanon. And while they flee the fighting, the streets of Lebanon empty of the tourists the country had been counting on this summer.

And the Lebanese who live here, who can't flee, are looking for their own safety, and often have nowhere they can go.

JJ Sutherland, NPR News, Beirut.

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