WASHINGTON -- In what could become the largest evacuation by sea in modern history, about 10,000 Americans and tens of thousands of European and other civilians are expected to begin boarding ships from Beirut today amid the escalating fighting between Israel and Hezbollah forces.
The American evacuees are to be ferried to the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus on charter ships, watched over by U.S. Marine and Navy jets and warships that will escort the vessels through an Israeli blockade of Lebanon and guard against other threats, according to U.S. military and civilian officials.
Military analysts warned that the gathering of thousands of civilians at Beirut's port and the loading of the ships, including the Orient Queen, an aging cruise ship chartered for Americans by the Defense Department, could be in danger of deliberate or accidental attack by either side.
"There is a risk - anything could go wrong," said Harlan Ullman, a former Navy commander who serves as a distinguished fellow at the National Defense University
Diplomatic officials in Washington confirmed that the United States has reached at least a tacit understanding with both Israel and the government of Lebanon to allow the evacuation to proceed without interference.
The United States as a matter of policy does not negotiate with Hezbollah but the group is represented within the Lebanese government.
The cooperation of both Israel and Hezbollah is needed to ensure safe passage of the evacuation ships through the Israeli naval blockade of Lebanon, the safe transit of dozens of helicopters through the port area, and the protection of evacuees from accidental or deliberate airstrikes or rocket or mortar attacks in the port area.
Typically, such arrangements can help assure local fighters that U.S. military forces are engaged only in evacuation and nothing more.
In addition to the Americans, others awaiting evacuation include as many as 25,000 Australians, 20,000 French and 10,000 British citizens.
Ullman and others said they expect the operation will be allowed to proceed.
"Hezbollah does not want to pick a fight with us," Ullman said. "If they did something like that, we would not stand idly by."
The operation is headed by Marine Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, who commands the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Force of four warships in the northern Red Sea. Marine officers said Jensen has moved with his staff to Cyprus to oversee the operation under the aegis of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
"Our countrymen in Lebanon who wish to leave should know that help is on the way," Marine Capt. David Nevers, a staff officer with the strike force, said in an e-mail interview yesterday.
The Marines, based on the amphibious assault carrier Iwo Jima, are flying four huge CH-53 helicopters capable of carrying 55 passengers and a dozen smaller CH-46 transport helicopters. The strike force also includes a reinforced battalion of combat Marines and a wide array of combat capability.
Two of the Marine CH-53 helicopters flew 40 American civilians out of Beirut yesterday. They were selected for air evacuation for health reasons, U.S. officials said.
U.S. and military officials said yesterday that it was unclear how long the evacuations would go on, in part because of the unknown course of diplomatic efforts to end the fighting.
Navy officials said the Orient Queen, a 38-year-old cruise ship based in Beirut, would take five hours to travel from Beirut to Cyprus. The same trip by helicopter takes an hour. And it was not clear how many of the Americans and Europeans in Beirut will demand to be evacuated.
Since World War II, the largest sea evacuation was in December 1950, when American ships carried 200,000 American soldiers and Marines from what is now Hungnam, North Korea, over a two-week period. One ship alone, the SS Meredith Victory, carried 14,000 men, women and children on the sea voyage to Pusan, South Korea, according to Jack Green, a historian at the U.S. Navy History Center in Washington.
The second-largest evacuation came in 1975 when 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese were evacuated from Saigon hours before the city fell to North Vietnamese forces. In 1983, almost 600 Americans, mostly medical students, were evacuated from Grenada as U.S. forces invaded.