US begins Lebanon evacuation

BEIRUT – The United States and other nations evacuated their citizens from Lebanon by helicopter, ship and bus on Wednesday as thousands of foreigners fled Israeli strikes pummeling the country for the past eight days.

“It’s very bad, very sad, I can’t believe what’s happening,” said a tearful Lubna Jaber, an Australian who had come to visit relatives in Lebanon. She was waiting in downtown Beirut with about 350 compatriots hoping to board a ferry to Turkey.

“Have you seen the pictures of the children who were killed? The world should see them, especially the Americans who support Israel,” said the 28-year-old, holding her six-year-old son.

Two explosions from an Israeli air strike echoed over the city as families clustered at the assembly point.

About 1,100 U.S. evacuees left Lebanon by sea and air for Cyprus, the largest group of U.S. citizens to have been rescued from the country in a single day, U.S. officials said.

The Pentagon said about 900 Americans were aboard a private passenger ship, the Orient Queen, that had left Beirut port. Another 200 were ferried out in helicopters and another vessel.

A U.S. official said the United States had the capacity to evacuate up to 6,000 Americans from Lebanon by Friday.

Nine military ships, including a helicopter carrier and a dock landing ship, and thousands of Marines and sailors were involved in a U.S. operation expected to evacuate 8,000 people.

“The night before last I don’t think anyone slept in Beirut. We stayed in a basement until 4 in the morning,” said Amal Kazzaz, 63, who arrived in Larnaca on a U.S. helicopter.

“In some places there is nothing, the people don’t have homes or anywhere to go,” she said. “They lost everything.”

In Cyprus, 75 km (40 miles) from Lebanon, U.S. Ambassador Oronald Schlicher said staff had secured hotel rooms and schools and were setting up a camp in a fairground for U.S. evacuees.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in Europe for a trip, ordered his official Airbus plane to be diverted to Cyprus on Wednesday to pick up Canadians fleeing Israeli air strikes. The first ship chartered by Canada left Beirut with evacuees at about 1830 GMT.