WASHINGTON – Americans evacuating Lebanon continue to arrive in the United States, and U.S. officials expect the numbers to grow in the coming days.
Five Navy vessels led by the USS Nashville, with a capacity of 1,200, are moving Americans out of the Mideast country. Four more Navy vessels will soon arrive.
"Nearly 3,000 Americans have been transported from Lebanon to date, over 2,400 in the last 24 hours, including those currently aboard the USS Nashville," Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero, deputy director for regional operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday.
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In addition to moving Americans from Lebanon to Cyprus, the United States will soon direct evacuees to a U.S. airbase in Incirlik, Turkey. Flights home are increasing too.
"We hope that as many as six flights will go on Friday. And those flights are now going to both BWI, or will now be going to BWI, Baltimore-Washington International Airport, as well as to Philadelphia," Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty said.
The first round of evacuees touched down Thursday morning in Baltimore, Md. For the most part, the 138 aboard that first flight praised the U.S. evacuation plan.
"It feels wonderful to be back in the States. We just want to thank so much the State Department and the people that helped the government, the Marines, to help get us out," said one arrival at BWI.
But Americans who left Lebanon with European evacuees on non-U.S. vessels said they encountered a far rougher journey.
"We went on a cargo ship from the port of Lebanon. ... It was horrible. There were no facilities on the ship, just get out alive, that was it. We were on the ship for about 16 hours. It's a trip that takes about 4 or 5 hours," said Tom Charara from Long Beach, Calif.
A mini-media circus met the evacuees, symptomatic of a near-obsession with the fate of Americans caught in the Middle East crossfire and an evacuation that has drawn sporadic criticism.
First among the complaints was that the Orient Queen cruise liner was late on the scene. U.S. officials said it took time to contract with the Greek vessel because U.S. cruise liners don't dock in Lebanon. Others were reluctant to challenge the Israeli sea blockade of Lebanon's coast, though State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States had been working with the Israeli government to ensure safe passage for evacuation ships.
Another criticism was the U.S. evacuation ships were late to arrive. U.S. officials said it had to dispatch vessels from Europe and the United States, which had to get down to the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
"I think everyone would have liked to have seen the evacuation get up to speed a little bit faster," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H.
Still one more criticism offered is that Americans were initially forced to sign promissory notes to repay the U.S. government up to $200 for passage from Beirut to Cyprus.
Reimbursement has been included in the State Department Basic Authorities Act since 1956. In part, the law says expenditures for evacuations can be made for "private United States citizens or third-country nationals, on a reimbursable basis to the maximum extent practicable ... except that no reimbursement under this clause shall be paid that is greater than the amount the person evacuated would have been charged for a reasonable commercial air fare immediately prior to the events giving rise to the evacuation."
"Making people sign promissory notes is impractical, sends the wrong message and its simply unnecessary," Sununu argued.
On Tuesday, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying that the law, when it was modified in 2001, states explicitly that the secretary has "the necessary flexibility not to seek reimbursement when it is not practicable."
"I believe the current crisis in Lebanon is just such a case. With thousands of Americans at risk, the international airport closed, and danger to civilians from the ongoing military activity, which could not have been foreseen, your top priority should be the safe evacuation of American citizens. I strongly urge you to exercise the authority in the Act to not seek reimbursement from evacuees," he wrote.
Under the critical eye of lawmakers and the public, administration officials quickly changed their minds.
"The basic tenets of the law have been in place for about 50 years. It was modified five years ago. ... But Secretary Rice wanted to go the extra mile for our American citizens in need, and we have waived that fee. So there is not going to be any charge we wanted to take away any last worries that people might have, we understand they're experiencing great difficulties, so we wanted to take away those worries," McCormack told FOX News on Wednesday.
U.S. Amb. to Cyprus Ronald L. Schlicher said those evacuation expenses include the boat ride from Lebanon to Cyprus and elsewhere, facilities to stay in until they depart those intermediate stops and sometimes hotel arrangements. The cost of food and medicine are also taken care of by the government.
Schlicher said the majority of folks leaving Lebanon for Cyprus so far have been people with dual nationality, but also some "people of third nationalities, but who have like ties of marriage or kinship." The total cost of the evacuation effort has not been assessed, and officials said it would not be until the operation is complete
In Baltimore, where the majority of evacuees arrived, the state of Maryland is footing the bill.
"We are travel agent, we are the health department, we are the bank. We are everything they need, and obviously we are very, very happy to do this," said Gov. Robert Ehrlich, adding that he's not concerned about who ultimately pays the state's expenses.
"I don't care. We are going to do what we need to do. We will work it out with the feds later. If we have to eat some of this, that's the way it is," he said.
With the waiver in force, some have said evacuated Americans should have had to take some responsibility for the costs arising from their travel to Lebanon. Prior to the latest outbreak of violence between Israel and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, the State Department warned Americans to "carefully weigh the necessity of their travel to Lebanon."
After the violence began, the State Department also advised all Americans in Lebanon to register with the U.S. Embassy. Many Americans ignored that advice, subsequently slowing their departure.
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