U.S. Marines landed in Beirut on Thursday for the first time in more than 20 years, helping evacuate Americans onto a Navy ship bound for Cyprus from battle-torn Lebanon.
About 40 U.S. Marines arrived at a beach just north of Beirut in a landing craft and picked up 300 Americans who they ferried to the amphibious assault ship USS Nashville just off the coast. The Nashville is supposed to sail for Cyprus with about 1,000 Americans.
Some evacuees were Lebanese-Americans who had taken their children to their homeland for the first time, only to be surprised by the fighting that erupted after Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers.
Hundreds of people, some with shirts draped over their heads to protect themselves from the sun, gathered on the beach. A U.S. Embassy official, speaking through a megaphone, pleaded for patience, reassuring the crowd that all those who registered to be evacuated would be assisted.
“We are frustrated and disappointed, but we are O.K.,” said Bob Elazon, an Illinois resident who complained the U.S. evacuation was badly organized.
Elazon, who left his native Lebanon 34 years ago, was with his 20-year-old daughter, Anna, who was visiting the country for the first time. His wife departed just before the fighting erupted.
Hezbollah militants fighting Israel are declared enemies of the United States and the group is blamed for the Beirut suicide bombing that killed 241 Americans in 1983. All U.S. forces withdrew within months, and there has been no American military presence since.
The first plane carrying U.S. evacuees landed outside Baltimore early Thursday, and eager family members waited to greet the 145 Americans aboard the charter flight.
Some 900 Americans arrived in Cyprus early Thursday aboard a luxury cruise ship — the first mass U.S. evacuation from Lebanon since the Israeli airstrikes started more than a week ago.
The cruise ship was among dozens of vessels evacuating thousands of foreigners. Some 8,000 of 25,000 U.S. citizens in Lebanon have asked to leave. So many people were leaving Lebanon that boats were forced to line up outside Beirut harbor and had to wait before docking in nearby Cyprus.
Exhausted and shaken, the Americans stood in line at the harbor in Larnaca, dragging their luggage and their children as they waited to be told where they would sleep and when they might leave. About 500 were housed at a fairgrounds in the Cypriot capital before flying to Baltimore.
Many of the Americans worried about relatives left behind in Lebanon.
“This war is unfair. It’s unfair if you see buildings fall and there are people inside,” said Mona Kharbouche, a mother of two who said she had left behind her mother, two sisters and a brother.
Elderly people in wheelchairs, a young woman on a stretcher and her right arm in a cast, and women with toddlers were the first to disembark from the Orient Queen nearly two hours after it tied up.
Catherine Haidar said she had been visiting her husband’s native Lebanon with their four daughters, ages 9-17, for the first time in 13 years. They were staying at house that shook from the bombings.
“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,” said Haidar, of Orange County, Calif.
Ann Shebbo, a U.S. citizen who lives in the United Arab Emirates, said she and her husband left relatives behind in the Shouf Mountains.
“There is a guilt feeling about leaving. I wanted to leave because of my children,” Shebbo said. “The Lebanese people should not suffer this way.”
The Americans departed two days after the first Europeans left on ships. An estimated 13,000 foreign nationals have been evacuated from the war-torn country.
Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, who is coordinating the U.S. evacuation, said more than 6,000 Americans will leave Lebanon by the weekend. The Nashville is one of several Navy ships assisting and military helicopters have flown some 200 Americans to Cyprus.
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 to Syria had led to some of the delays.
Most are leaving by sea as officials from several countries deemed the overland route to Syria too dangerous and Israel knocked Beirut’s airport out of service last week by bombing its runways.
Shebbo, now in Cyprus, said she and her husband had struggled to get information from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and had found out about the boat from people in the United States. For four days, they inhaled the fumes from a bombed power plant two miles from where they had been staying.
Others echoed her complaints about the U.S. Embassy.
“The guard was so rude and said there was no evacuation plan,” said Michael Russo, 23, of Tucson, Ariz., of his visit to the embassy. “On Wednesday and Thursday, I asked them if there was a plan, and they looked at me like I was crazy.”
Many Canadians in Larnaca and Beirut also expressed anger at their government’s evacuation effort, either because of the long wait at the port or the lack of planning. About 1,600 were waiting in the hot sun at the Beirut port.
Associated Press Writer Maria Sanminiatelli in Larnaca, Cyprus, contributed to this story.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press