The United States ramped up its evacuation of citizens from Lebanon after a slow start as a luxury cruise ship carrying 1,000 Americans arrived in Cyprus early Thursday, a week after the Israeli bombardment began.
The Orient Queen reached Cyprus’ port of Larnaca after a nine-hour journey, completing the first in a massive relay to evacuate thousands of U.S. citizens from war-ton Lebanon.
The eight-deck cruise liner’s voyage was the first mass U.S. exodus from Lebanon since Israeli airstrikes started more than a week ago. The Orient Queen was just one among dozens of cruise ships taking part in the evacuation of thousands of foreigners from Lebanon.
“I didn’t want to leave because I thought that if there were 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, maybe the Israelis would think twice about what they were hitting,” passenger Catherine Haidar of Orange County, Calif. told The Associated Press after the ship arrived in Larnaca.
Haidar, her husband Mahmoud and their four daughters, aged 9-17, had been staying 5 miles from a bridge connecting Beirut to Damascus and she said their house was shaking from the bombings.
The Americans departed two days after the first Europeans left on ships, and thousands more Europeans continued to stream out by sea Wednesday.
Amid complaints the U.S. effort had lagged, American officials made clear that fears about Americans traveling on roads in Beirut, especially at night, and on roads to Syria had led to some of the delays. The U.S. ambassador said Tuesday that an orderly and safe evacuation had been a first priority.
The Europeans faced some of the same difficulties: the airport closed by Israeli strikes and concerns about the safety of roads to Syria. But it was clear U.S. officials feared any large evacuation effort moving Americans might be targeted by Hezbollah or other hostile groups.
Ann Shebbo, another American passenger on the Orient Queen, said she felt guilty about leaving Lebanon when others had no choice but to remain behind. She left brothers and sisters behind in the Shouf mountains.
“I wanted to leave because of my children. But they have children too,” she told AP after arriving in Larnaca. “The Lebanese people should not suffer this way.”
Shebbo, who is married to a Lebanese man and now lives in the United Arab Emirates, had been staying in a house near a power plant that was bombed and she said the fuel burned for several days.
Earlier on Wednesday, Lebanese police lined the main coastal road in Beirut as armored SUVs full of security guards escorted buses of Americans from an assembly point to the port to board the ship.
U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman, waving on the dock as the ship pulled out, said the evacuation would quickly swell to up to 2,000 Americans a day, both by sea and by helicopter.
“We expect this to go on for the next week until every American who has asked us for help to leave, gets to leave,” Feltman told The Associated Press.
Around 8,000 of the 25,000 Americans in Lebanon have asked to be evacuated.
Military helicopters flew 200 Americans from the hilltop U.S. Embassy to Larnaca. Chinook helicopters were taking over the task, capable of carrying 60 people each, twice as many as the Sea Stallions that have been ferrying out Americans since Sunday.
A Navy task force of nine ships, seven of which were en route late Wednesday, will help with the evacuation. Two more passenger ships chartered by the Navy — the Rahman and the Vittoria M — were due to arrive on Friday, giving U.S. authorities the ability to take a total of 2,700 passengers daily, according to the Navy’s Sealift Command spokesman Tim Boulay. He said they were seeking more ships.
In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty said the United States expects to bring about 1,200 people from Beirut to Cyprus on Thursday. The Orient Queen will also turn around and return to Beirut for another run, she said.
She urged U.S. citizens in Lebanon to register with the embassy by email or phone, and urged relatives or friends in the United States to report the wherabouts of Americans in Lebanon by calling 1-888-407-4747.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived at Larnaca airport early Thursday in his military Airbus A310 to pick up 120 evacuees from Lebanon and fly them home.
At 4 a.m. Wednesday, the embassy telephone call went out to hundreds of waiting Americans to head to the assembly point to be bused to the Orient Queen.
Among them was Rima Issa, who had been in Lebanon visiting relatives. Her 9-year-old son Noureddine had only a week’s supply of anti-rejection medicine he needs because of a liver transplant he underwent as an infant.
She pleaded with embassy officials for days to get out — and was out the door by 6:30 a.m. after getting the call.
Noureddine “was happy to be leaving, but he was unhappy because he never had the chance to enjoy his holiday as much as he wanted,” Issa’s mother, Mariam Rifaa’i, told the AP.
“Noureddine has been shaking like a bird when he heard explosions. He would scream ’I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die,”’ she said.
Orange juice and MREs
At the assembly point, evacuees drank orange juice and ate military Meals Ready to Eat as their papers were checked. Then the buses rolled out in several waves to the port.
“I’m so relieved, there are no words to explain. I’m very thankful,” said Elizabeth Kassab, a 45-year-old, nervously smoking a cigarette on the ship’s deck. “But I’m still nervous and I won’t relax until we get out of here.”
There were emotional goodbyes, hugs and tears as the Americans, many of Lebanese descent, were dropped off by relatives.
“I can’t believe the Americans,” Danni Atiyeh, a 39-year-old civil engineer from Kansas City, Mo., said as he stood with his pregnant wife and sons Ali, 10, and Adrian, 6, waiting for buses to the ship. “Everybody else has gone home ... We’re still here.”
The State Department said Tuesday it had dropped a plan to make Americans reimburse the government for the trip, but Atiyeh said he and others were asked to sign promissory notes to pay for the voyage before they could board.
There were nervous moments. A light-haired woman standing alone waiting to have her passport checked broke into tears when a loud explosion shook Beirut from an airstrike on Hezbollah’s stronghold in the capital’s south.
The departure was delayed slightly because one passenger, 11-day-old infant Rawan Ali Mannoun, didn’t have a passport. Her parents pleaded with embassy officials to allow them on the ship and in the end, a pass was issued for the infant. As her parents ran toward the waiting ship carrying Rawan those on the deck applauded.
At the same port, a ship carried the second load in as many days of Greeks out of Lebanon. Denmark evacuated more than 4,000 of its citizens, continuing a flow of Europeans that began Sunday.
The Orient Queen arrived in Beirut on Tuesday night. It was held up en route by Israeli ships because it had Lebanese on board, who had been taking a cruise in the eastern Mediterranean when the fighting began.
Israel has imposed a sea blockade three miles off shore as part of the campaign launched after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers July 12 in a cross-border raid. But its warships have been letting through evacuation ships.
Feltman said the embassy did the best it could. “People are scared, they wanted to get out immediately. But we had to make sure there was safe travel,” he said.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said another difficulty was that the Beirut port was so busy it was hard to get ships in and out.