BEIRUT, Lebanon — U.S. Marines raced Monday to complete naval and air evacuation plans for thousands of Americans in Lebanon — an operation U.S. military official said carries “some risk.”
The Orient Queen, a commercial ship hired by the government, will sail into a Beirut port Tuesday escorted by the destroyer USS Gonzales and possibly the USS Iwo Jima. The cruise ship will try to rescue the estimated 5,000 citizens who are so far wanting to leave.
By late Monday only 64 individuals were known to have departed with U.S. support by helicopter.
The cruise ship, which can carry up to 750 people, will be forced to dodge an Israeli warship naval blockade and potential Hezbollah attacks that damaged two vessels Friday. The boat will take the citizens to the nearby island country Cyprus.
The Orient Queen will be forced to sail some of the journey alone as the warships intend to maintain a distance from Lebanon to avoid appearing to be a threatening force.
The trip from Beirut to the small island country can take up to five hours. The ship will likely make several trips before the entire operation is complete.
As of Friday, the State Department said there was no reliable way to safely get citizens out of Lebanon by air, land or sea. A spokesman told U.S. citizens to "assess what is best for their own personal security."
But the naval evacuation plans stepped up as Israel appeared to be allowing evacuation ships through its blockade of Lebanon. Earlier in the week the blockade prevented cruise ships from docking in Beirut and cut off the fuel supply to Lebanese power plants.
A military official said if bombing intensifies the number of Americans wanting out of Lebanon may explode. The U.S. government will send 2,200 Marines to the area in the next few days to help protect citizens if necessary.
Three CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters — each able to carry 36 people — were also available to fly evacuees from Beirut to a British air base on Cyprus, Whitman said, and more choppers will be made available on Tuesday. The helicopter evacuations, which began Sunday, take about one hour.
Details still elusive
Many of the details of the evacuation Tuesday still remain unknown to those who wish to leave — including order of evacuation, what they can bring and even the time of their departure.
The U.S. Embassy has advised those who wish to leave that they should prepare their bags — one for each person, weighing no more than 30 pounds — and be ready for announcements on how to depart.
"We give priority to U.S. citizens but will consider departure assistance to Legal Permanent Residents accompanying a U.S. citizen immediate family member. One guardian may accompany an American citizen minor, even if that guardian is not an American," a statement said. The statement also said pets would not be evacuated.
Joanne Nucho finished packing in the early morning hours Tuesday. Nucho, a student at American University in Beirut, said there was talk that Americans would have to pay a $300 evacuation fee, not be allowed to take laptops or cameras and be left to sleep on the streets of Cyprus.
“The bombs are very loud and close right now, but we're just sticking together and are helping each other feel strong ... Lebanese and Americans alike,” Nucho said in an e-mail exchange Monday. She has been in contact with MSNBC.com several times during the last three days.
“We're all optimistic, and actually feeling very safe in our dorm here,” she said.
Beyond U.S. resources
At the State Department, McCormack said the cost of a massive evacuation was beyond U.S. resources. He said evacuated Americans would be asked to pay commercial rates, and if they did not have the money to promise to pay in the future.
“Everybody who wishes to leave will be able to leave,” he promised.
An estimated 25,000 Americans are there, about 24,000 of whom have dual citizenship with Lebanon.
“Our planning assumptions are on the order of thousands,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. “You don’t actually know how many people are going to want to leave until you actually start the larger-scale operations.”
Some Americans have driven to neighboring Syria in recent days and flown out of the region from there, despite U.S. government warnings that the road journey was too dangerous.
The U.S. government discouraged travel by land to the border of Syria. Two of the three major roads have been bombed severely, Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, told CNN. And some Americans who got to the border were denied entry by Syria.
“We did not think that was a wise way to counsel people to leave the country,” she said.
The State and Defense departments were coordinating to ensure that the evacuation is “safe and carried out in an orderly fashion,” the embassy statement said.
Cyprus awaits flood of people
The government of the nearby Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus prepared to help with the evacuation of the thousands expected to be brought out of Lebanon by the United States and European countries.
“At this stage we don’t have an exact number of people. ... We’ll surely have four or five ships this week alone,” said Foreign Ministry official Omiros Mavromatis.
Since the kidnapping on Wednesday of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas, which Israel says sparked the ongoing offensive, Israel has blocked ports, closed the main international airport by destroying its runways and struck strategic points around Lebanon.
The embassy itself is not being evacuated, Harty said in an ABC News interview. But dependents of U.S. personnel who have chosen to leave will be able to depart, she said.
Two Arab-American organizations criticized the slow start and that the United States was not promoting a cease-fire.
“The absence of American leadership to secure a cease-fire and protect its own citizens is appalling,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said “the highest duty of any president is to protect the lives of Americans.”
Many of the U.S. citizens in Lebanon are Arab-Americans making regular summer pilgrimages to visit family members.
Cyprus awaits flood
An Italian ship left Beirut with some 350 Italians who were expected in the Cyprus port of Larnaca by Monday evening.
Hundreds of French citizens and other Europeans were evacuating on a commercial ship sent by France, which has more than 20,000 citizens in Lebanon. The evacuees began moving in buses from a Beirut school used as a gathering point to Beirut’s port, where they were to board boats taking them to the ship anchored offshore.
“Who knows when this will end,” said Habib al-Saad, who was sending his three sons. “If any of our Arab leaders had a brain this would have been resolved a long time ago. But they don’t,” al-Saad said as his sons — Marwan, 20, Thomas, 17, and Pierre, 10 — looking bewildered and anxious — listened to their father in silence.
“I am not worried about them,” al-Saad said. “They will look after themselves.”
Greece was sending a navy frigate to a Lebanese port to pick up 100 people and has three additional warships on standby.
Hundreds of thousands were on the move in Lebanon, leaving areas considered dangerous for the relative safety of the hills east of Beirut, the eastern Bekaa valley and northern Lebanon.
Wisam Musalam, a statistics student in Lyons, France, was standing in line outside the French Culture Center, waiting to register his name for evacuation. He is not a French national, but has a residence permit in France.
“Slowly, slowly we will become like the Palestinians,” he said. “A nation of refugees.”
Foreign evacuations continue
Meanwhile, about 850 of about 5,000 Swedes in Lebanon have been evacuated, largely to the city of Aleppo in northern Syria. Sweden chartered three ships to bring Swedes from Beirut to Cyprus, but was awaiting security guarantees from the warring parties.
A British aircraft carrier and another warship — both already in the Mediterranean — set off Sunday on a three-day trip to the Middle East in preparation for the possible evacuation of Britons. A British Foreign Office spokesman said the first wave of Britons — children, elderly and ill people — left Sunday aboard a helicopter that also transported European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
Denmark began evacuating some 2,300 people by bus to Damascus, Syria. So far, some 700 have returned home, the Danish government said.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said there were more than 1,400 Russian citizens in Lebanon and more than 1,000 were ready to leave.
MSNBC.com's Steve Veres, NBC News’ Jim Miklaszewski and The Associated Press contributed to this report.