BEIRUT, Lebanon – Anxious Americans hauled burgeoning suitcases down a rocky Lebanese beach and into the waiting hold of a U.S. Navy landing craft Friday as the accelerating U.S. evacuation moved thousands away from unrelenting Israeli airstrikes.
As many as 5,000 U.S. citizens were slated to leave — the largest number in one day since the evacuation began Wednesday. U.S. Embassy officials, still smarting from criticism over delays in starting the evacuation effort, said that more than 8,000 of the 25,000 Americans in Lebanon when the bombing started will have evacuated by Friday night.
The Americans joined tens of thousands of foreigners heading home to destinations around the globe.
U.S. Marines helped push baby carriages and lifted children into the boats ferrying thousands of U.S. citizens, many who had been visiting family in Lebanon, to seven warships that waited in the Mediterranean, compared to two the day before.
Dogs sniffed luggage for explosives. Troops handed out water bottles and military rations to evacuees, many of whom had been waiting in the sun since 5 a.m.
"We're really sad because we're leaving this way," said Maha Maher, 38, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who was visiting relatives with her two sons. "All that we wish is peace for Lebanon, because it's a great country. The Lebanese people are paying the price, and we feel sorry for this."
The USS Trenton, normally a troop transport, left Beirut carrying 1,775 Americans to the neighboring Mediterranean island of Cyprus, as did the USS Nashville, with 1,000 evacuees. Officials hoped a commercial vessel, the Saudi-owned Rahmah, would leave with another 1,400 Americans headed for Turkey.
Officials had said that only about 8,000 Americans had registered to leave, but they were letting people who had not signed up board the ships. They declined to give a specific number, but suggested the effort would wrap up this weekend.
"That would be my suspicion," said Marine Brig. Gen. Carl B. Jensen, who was leading the operation. He added there might even be room for guests from other countries.
"It wouldn't surprise me at all if we had some excess capacity," Jensen said. "We will of course make that available to other nations to assist in their orderly departure," he added.
About a quarter of Lebanon's population, or about 1 million people, emigrated during the 1975-1990 war, to France, the Americas and Australia. Many of those who settled in the U.S. were dual citizens.
Catherine Haidar and her husband Mahmoud, who own a restaurant in southern California, had brought their four girls — ages 9 to 17.
"I was waiting for my kids to grow up," Catherine Haidar said, adding that the girls had just gotten used to the unfamiliar territory and made friends when the bombs began to fall.
"The house was shaking," Haidar said.
Americans already in Cyprus boarded flights home or packed into shelters.
The U.S. government already has spent about $200,000 helping Americans return to the United States, an amount expected to grow.
A repatriation center opened Thursday at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Another center opened Friday at Philadelphia's airport.
The centers are staffed by medical and mental health professionals, and have phone banks and computers to help people contact friends and relatives.
Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12, setting off the Israeli offensive. Hezbollah has responded by raining rockets onto Israel.
Most foreigners are traveling by sea to Cyprus as the overland route to Syria was deemed too dangerous and Israel knocked Beirut's airport out of service last week by bombing its runways.
About 200 Canadians assembled near the Beirut port waiting to be evacuated, many wearing hats or covering their heads with towels under the sweltering heat. Officials said as many as 30,000 were scheduled for evacuation and 2,413 people had left Beirut by the end of the day.
The first planeload landed in Ottawa aboard Prime Minister Stephen Harper's jet, which Harper had flown to Larnaca, Cyprus.
The U.S. evacuation effort drew Marines to Lebanon for the first time in more than two decades. A total of 241 Americans, including many Marines, were killed in a 1983 suicide bombing blamed on Hezbollah-linked militants. The Marines left Lebanon a few months later, ending the last U.S. military presence in this tiny Arab nation.
"For the U.S. Marine Corps, Beirut will always be hallowed ground," Jensen said. "No Marine can set foot on Lebanon without memories flooding."
Other evacuees so far include at least 2,860 Britons, 1,000 Italians, 608 Indians, 3,500 Germans, 560 Greeks and 1,000 Turks.