WASHINGTON, July 17 (UPI) — The State Department has hired the cruise ship Orient Queen to evacuate U.S. citizens from Beirut starting Tuesday, according to the Pentagon.
An American Navy destroyer, the USS Gonzales will escort the ship for security reasons.
The Orient Queen can carry about 750 passengers for the approximate five-hour crossing from Beirut to Cyprus, according to Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
At least 8,000 of the estimated 25,000 American citizens in Lebanon registered with the American embassy prior to the war between Israel and the terrorist group Hezbollah. Several hundred have expressed interest in being evacuated.
Two U.S. Marine CH-53 helicopters moved 43 evacuees from Beirut to Cyprus Monday. On Sunday they moved 21 “special needs” evacuees.
Each CH-53 can carry 36 passengers on the one-hour trip to Cyprus from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, according to Whitman. A third helicopter is joining the operation Monday, and more will be added as needed.
“Airlift is not the most efficient way of taking out large numbers (of evacuees),” Whitman said.
The helicopters have a continuous airlift capability, and the three together can carry more than 1,000 people a day between Beirut and Cyprus if necessary, if all three run at least 10 round trips in a 24-hour period.
The Orient Queen is listed as a ship belonging to Abou Merhi cruises of Lebanon. Whitman identified it as a Greek cruise ship.
A team of 18 Defense Department planners arrived in Beirut Sunday to begin coordinating military operations for an evacuation.