US citizens begin ‘assisted departure’ from Lebanon

THE United States expects to evacuate more than 6,000 of its citizens fleeing Israeli air raids against Lebanon by Friday, the commander of the operation said yesterday.

Nine US military ships, including a helicopter carrier and a dock landing ship, and thousands of marines and sailors were part of the evacuation operation.

Israel’s week-long attacks launched in reprisal for the murder and kidnap of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas have forced thousands of Lebanese and foreigners to flee Lebanon.

Brigadier General Carl Jensen, Commander of Task Force 59 and in charge of operations, said more than 1,100 US citizens were expected to be removed from Lebanon yesterday, and a further 3,000 today.

“We hope by this Friday we would have moved in excess of 6,000 from Lebanon who wanted to go voluntarily,” Brig Gen Jensen told a news conference in Cyprus.

Hundreds of Westerners have abandoned Beirut for the east Mediterranean island by air and sea over the past three days.

Bracing for an influx of arrivals, the United States has rented the sprawling grounds of the Cyprus State Fair, which lie on the outskirts of the capital Nicosia, to temporarily accommodate people unable to immediately leave Cyprus.

“This is for being prepared. We have booked the whole fairground to be on the safe side,” said Jane Zimmermann, Deputy Chief of Mission of the American Embassy in Cyprus.

Embassy authorities were trying to ensure that their stay in Cyprus was as brief as possible and charter commercial flights were also being arranged, she said.

Brig Gen Jensen said the United States did not have an exact figure of how many of its citizens would want to leave Lebanon. However, earlier reports claimed some 8,000 of the 25,000 Americans in the region were seeking to leave.

“This is not in any way, shape or manner an evacuation. This is an assisted departure,” he said, adding the US embassy in Beirut would remain open.

Cyprus, an EU member on the fringes of the Middle East, lies some 85km from the Lebanese coast. It has friendly ties with its Middle East neighbours and hosted thousands of Lebanese refugees fleeing the civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.

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