The Bush administration says it is working to evacuate all U.S. citizens wanting to leave Lebanon amid continued Israeli strikes against Hezbollah operations in the country.
The State Department says fewer than 100 of the estimated 25,000 U.S. citizens in Lebanon have been evacuated to Cyprus so far. But spokesman Sean McCormack says plans are under way to get Americans out of danger via U.S. military air transport as well as commercial and military sea vessels.
"What we hope in the very near future is to start moving people out in groups of hundreds [at a time]. Part of that effort will be via the air bridge. The other part of that effort will be via ships that come in to help take people out. I expect that to happen in the near future," he said.
Fifteen-thousand Americans have registered with the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. McCormack said it is not known how many will want to get out of Lebanon, but officials are assuming a number in the thousands. Asked why the United States is taking longer than some other nations to evacuate its citizens, McCormack noted there are far more Americans in Lebanon than nationals of most other countries.
He said the U.S. embassy in Beirut is adding staff to assist in the evacuation effort, and had a message for Americans wishing to leave Lebanon.
"We want to have a safe, orderly, timely method to get people out who want to leave. What we have [said] in the latest message going out from the [U.S.] embassy to our citizens in Lebanon is: Get your travel gear in order. Make sure your bags are ready to go. Make sure you have your travel documents, so that when we do start into this phase, people are ready to go," added McCormack.
Every evacuee must carry a passport and other forms of identification, and will be limited to a suitcase weighing nearly 14 kilograms. All will be charged commercial rates for transportation.
Other nations are also scrambling to evacuate their citizens from Lebanon. British officials say their evacuation operation will likely be the biggest since the Second World War, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers trapped by advancing Nazi troops were rescued from the shores of France in 1940.