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US broadens its evacuation of citizens from Lebanon strife

BEIRUT -- 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 today, a week after the Israeli bombardment began.

The Orient Queen reached Cyprus's port of Larnaca after a nine-hour journey, completing the first in a massive relay to evacuate thousands of US citizens from war-ton Lebanon.

The eight-deck cruise liner's voyage was the first mass US exodus from Lebanon since Israeli air strikes 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.

The Americans departed two days after the first Europeans left on ships, and thousands more Europeans continued to stream out by sea yesterday.

Amid complaints the US 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 US 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 US officials feared any large evacuation effort moving Americans might be targeted by Hezbollah or other hostile groups.

As part of the effort to expedite the process, a force of 40 US Marines landed on a beach in Beirut at dawn this morning, Reuters reported. The Marines arrived a landing craft from the troop carrier USS Nashville.

The Marines were returning to Lebanon nearly 23 years after Hezbollah guerrillas blew up a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 Marines and other service personnel.

Also today, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived at Larnaca airport in his military Airbus A310 to pick up 120 evacuees.

Yesterday, 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.

US 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 said.

Around 8,000 of the 25,000 Americans in Lebanon have asked to be evacuated.

Military helicopters flew 200 Americans from the hilltop US 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 will help with the evacuation. Two more passenger ships chartered by the Navy -- the Rahman and the Vittoria M -- are due to arrive tomorrow, giving US authorities the ability to take a total of 2,700 passengers daily, according to the Navy's Sealift Command spokesman Tim Boulay.

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty said the United States expects to bring about 1,200 people from Beirut to Cyprus today.

She urged US citizens in Lebanon to register with the embassy by e-mail or phone.

At 4 a.m. yesterday, 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 antirejection 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 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,' " said Issa's mother, Mariam Rifaa'i.

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