WASHINGTON, July 19 (UPI) -- Nearly 1,000 American citizens Wednesday left Beirut for Cyprus on the Lebanese cruise ship the Orient Queen.
By Thursday the U.S. military's capacity for the evacuation of Americans will double to more than 2,000 a day, and by Friday it will exceed 4,000 a day.
The military has nine vessels in the vicinity of Lebanon, according to Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
"Our goal is to continue to have excess capacity," said Whitman.
Responding to criticism that the Pentagon has been slow to organize the evacuation of up to 25,000 Americans compared with the evacuation of Europeans by their governments, Whitman said the emphasis has been on security. American citizens are tempting terrorist targets, and the operation -- which got underway Sunday when the State Department requested the insertion of an 18-man planning team -- takes into account safety "first and foremost," he said.
"The goal here is a safe, orderly organized disciplined evacuation of American citizens," he said.
The large deck amphibious ship the U.S.S. Nashville will arrive Wednesday or Thursday and will be able to carry about 1,000 people. Also participating in the operation Wednesday are the U.S.S. Gonzalez and the U.S.S. Barry, both destroyers.
The ship is unlikely to dock at the port in Beirut for security reasons and may well use its landing craft and helicopters to ferry passengers out to it.
On Friday Hezbollah hit an Israeli ship with a sophisticated cruise missile, killing six. And in 2000, suicide bombers in a small boat detonated explosives next to the U.S.S. Cole while it refueled, killing 17 sailors.