A first batch of 21 Americans was evacuated to Cyprus from Lebanon on Sunday as a special U.S. military team arrived to plan for what could be a much bigger evacuation sparked by the conflict with Israel.

The arrival of the U.S. Central Command’s survey and assessment team of up to 20 people was “an important first step in facilitating the safe departure of Americans who want to leave Lebanon,” the embassy said on its Web site.

Estimates of the number of U.S. citizens in Lebanon range up to 25,000. Israeli air raids, retaliating for Hizbollah rocket attacks, struck Beirut on a fifth day of a bombardment that has killed at least 112 people.

The State Department said it was working with the Defense Department on a plan to help Americans leave who wish to do so, most likely via commercial and charter flights from Cyprus.

For now, the State Department urged U.S. citizens to sit tight as it seeks a safe way to get them out. Trying to get to Syria by road was “rather perilous,” said Maura Harty, head of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Pressed on how long it might take to complete evacuation planning, she said, “We are just not sure about that yet.”

“We have fielded hundreds of calls,” Harty said. “We may get into thousands,” she added in a teleconference with reporters organized by the State Department.

Not all callers were necessarily seeking to leave, Harty said. She repeated calls for Americans in Lebanon to register with the embassy and report any special medical needs.

Before the latest fighting erupted last week, the embassy had registered more than 8,000 Americans living in Lebanon or traveling there, Harty said.

The survey and assessment team arrived via CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter from “elsewhere in the Middle East” with a communications system that could be used if embassy systems failed, Marine Col. Kerry Burkholder, the Central Command’s special operations chief of staff, said in the teleconference.

Burkholder, in reply to a question, said he was unaware of any U.S. communication with Hizbollah to seek guarantees of safe passage as part of evacuation planning.

The helicopter that brought in the evacuation planners helped fly out the first 21 Americans to be evacuated to Cyprus, said Air Force Lt. Sharbe Clark, a Central Command spokeswoman.

Joined by a second CH-53 helicopter, the evacuation flights carried nonessential embassy staff, some students and people with serious medical needs such as kidney dialysis patients, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. evacuees arrived safely at a British Air Force base in Akrotiri in southern Cyprus, said Army Capt. Chris Augustine, another Central Command spokesman.

(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Patricia Zengerle in Washington)

© 2006 Reuters