July 21st, 2006 06:09 EST
Lebanon Assisted Departure Special Briefing With Assistant Secretary of State
Lebanon Assisted Departure Special Briefing With Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty and Department of Defense Deputy Director for Regional Operations of theJoint Chiefs of Staff Brigadier General Barbero
MR. CASEY: Good afternoon, everyone. We are back for round three of our daily updates to you on our efforts to assist the departure of American citizens from Lebanon. Once again, we have with us Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Maura Harty, as well as Brigadier General Barbero to give you an update both on the efforts of the State Department and Defense Department on this issue.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: Thank you all very much for being here again today. A quick update on some of the things I've talked about in the past. By dusk today in Cyprus, approximately 2250 people will have left -- excuse me, Cyprus and Beirut -- approximately 2250 people will have left Lebanon by chopper as well as by the various vessels that we have referred to in the past. To date, that brings the total of assisted departures to approximately 3850. There are another 400 people, our Embassy in Damascus has confirmed, made it out by land to Syria.
I'm happy to note that the first charter flight arrived today at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, carrying 138 people. The Department of Health and Human Services, the Red Cross, state government, local, federal officials were all on hand, including the State Department's Under Secretary for Management, Henrietta Fore.
I've talked to you in the past about a convoy from southern Lebanon to bring American citizens out of harm's way by bus. That did occur successfully -- 341 people made it to Beirut on the Embassy-assisted bus convoy and those 341 people are now boarding the Orient Queen for onward travel to Cyprus. We are now ramping up operations at Mersin, Turkey to assist American citizens, given that the numbers that we are bringing out are beginning to stretch the capacity that we had previously established in Cyprus.
What are we doing in Beirut today? We are asking American citizens now to monitor the Embassy's website, http://beirut.usembassy.gov/, and to listen to Lebanese radio station 105.5 for information and updates. We're running an open system now because the appointment system that served us very well for the first several days is, in fact, almost getting -- it almost can be seen by some to be a little bit of a bureaucratic obstacle. We don't want to spend time on the bureaucracy. We want to spend time getting people on to the ships.
So what does that mean, practically speaking? I need to ask everybody to remember that the good people on the ground working hard to help people are making decisions as circumstances dictate. We are trying very hard to make sure that the most urgent cases go by air, go by helicopter to the greatest degree possible. As ships come in, we are filling ships as safely and expeditiously as we can. People should know that they may likely -- in fact, probably will likely wait longer than they would like or that we or that we would like them to wait as we process them, as we go through security, as we get them safely onboard vessels.
We're trying to do this as expeditiously as possible. Urge people really to bring food and water and be prepared for a little bit of a wait. Americans should report to the Internal Security Forces Barracks at Dbayeh Bridge -- that is to the Internal Security Forces Barracks at Dbayeh Bridge. If people find when they get there that they can't be accommodated with the ship capacity at hand, then they will be asked to place their names on the list for priority movement the next day.
If American citizens are in southern Lebanon and have not -- did not avail themselves and were not able to take the convoy, we are asking them to continue to stand fast and to monitor Lebanese radio station 105.5, so that as we put together future convoys, if the need arises, we will do so and they will be aware of those. We'd like to thank Prime Minister Siniora, the Lebanese Government and the International Security Forces for everything they're doing to make this operation go as smoothly as it can.
What are we doing in Cyprus? In Cyprus, Nicosia can accommodate approximately 2,200 people a day. There is food. There is water. There are cots available. Three flights left Thursday from Cyprus, making a total of four that have now carried people out. They are all going at capacity. 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. Our goal in Cyprus remains to continue to minimize the amount of time people spend on the ground in Cyprus. We continue to be very, very grateful to the Government of Cyprus for everything they are doing to help us move our American citizens on their way home.
Now to Turkey for a moment. Our mission in Turkey is prepared to use the port of Mersin as an overflow reception center for American citizens choosing to depart Lebanon. Travelers will be bussed to Incirlik Air Base for onward travel to the United States. The first passengers in this phase of the operation will likely arrive there Saturday. I ask you to continue to remember these are fluid situations, these are volatile situations. Our target continues to be safe, secure, efficient transport of American citizens out of harm's way, so the things that I'm describing here today are targets and we will certainly continue to try and meet them as best we can, given the situation on the ground at any given moment. Special thanks to Turkey for facilitating our efforts to use the port of Mersin to help Americans leave and get on home after their departure from Lebanon.
Friday capacity continues to be linked to helicopters that we have been running for days. The Orient Queen continues to go back and forth. The Ramah -- that ship that was formerly known as Sancak -- we believe will come into play on Friday. There are a number of naval vessels and I will ask my colleague to go into more detail with respect to those assets. Thank you very much for your attention.
BGEN BARBERO: Good afternoon. The United States military continues to assist with the sea and air departure of American citizens wishing to leave Lebanon. 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. Tomorrow, the daily rate of passenger movement will approach 3,000 and that capacity continues to grow.
Vessels currently engaged are the USS Nashville and the passenger ship Orient Queen. The passenger ship Ramah and Vittoria and other navy ships will join the flow as they arrive in the area in the next few days. The Ramah is a Panamanian-flagged ship with a capacity of 1,400 passengers. We expect her to start tomorrow. The high-speed vessel Vittoria, an Italian-flagged ship with a capacity of approximately 330 passengers, should begin moving passengers on Saturday. And U.S. military helicopters are continuing their flights between Lebanon and Cyprus, moving more than 160 passengers yesterday. And these flights will continue.
The following U.S. Navy assets are now in the area: the USS Nashville, currently underway with more than 1,000 passengers onboard who were moved from Lebanon via landing craft; the USS Gonzalez and the USS Barry, both are guided-missile destroyers; and the USS Mount Whitney, a command-and-control ship. Four more U.S. Navy ships are expected in the area over the coming days; most will be arriving within the next 24 hours.
To support this operation, we have over 250 military personnel at Akrotiri and the Port of Larnaca, providing command-and-control, security, medical support and support to our helicopter operations and C-130 aircraft operations. Over 60 military personnel are at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. They are providing command-and-control, logistics, planning and a small security detachment. We will continue to support the Ambassador and the on-scene commander through the completion of this operation.
And with that, I think we'll take your questions.
QUESTION: General, is there a possibility that Hezbollah agents, who might be U.S. citizens, might have even green cards, could somehow get into this mix and courtesy of the U.S. Government find themselves in Philadelphia or in Baltimore?
BGEN BARBERO: I know that the Embassy is screening all the passengers before they arrive at the point of embarkation and I couldn't answer that hypothetical question. I know there is a screening process and I know we have security forces aboard every one of these means of conveyance.
QUESTION: Okay. I have some logistical questions. Well, not entirely logistical. One is. You had trouble getting people out of southern Lebanon; it was too dangerous. And now you're able to do it. Could you elaborate on what made it possible? Did you get help from the Israeli Government? Did the fighting go elsewhere? How were you able to turn it around?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: You know, I wouldn't necessarily say we had trouble.
QUESTION: Well, the roads were dangerous, you said.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: We gathered people in two separate sites and in making a decision as to when they would travel, that decision made on the ground by our colleagues at the Embassy in Lebanon, we took an approach that we have taken throughout this exercise: it is to be informed by an abundance of caution to make sure that what we are doing is providing as safe, as secure, as effective and efficient a means of travel as we possibly can.
In consultation with the Embassy -- well, actually the Embassy took the decision that they would wait until they felt that it was a more secure rather than a less secure environment to move. There were escorts, our Diplomatic Security officers, working very closely with local contacts to make sure the time was right to make that move and they made that move. I don't pretend to know every element that went into that decision-making process, but I'm really delighted that they did it the way that they did it and that it was successful and as people are boarding a ship now.
QUESTION: And by any chance do you have a time for the next group to arrive in BWI and/or Philadelphia?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: I don't have that. We can perhaps get that for you.
QUESTION: That would be nice. Thank you.
QUESTION: That would be my question too, if we could find out when more people are coming.
QUESTION: You mentioned that there have been roughly close to 4,000 assisted departures to date. Do you have a sense of how many more you expect to have?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: I think that the sort of best estimates are just that, and so what I'd like to say instead, what you've heard me say over the last several days, is that we will stay and get this job done. We want to make sure -- again, I will urge people who have never registered or not yet registered to please do so, to please let us know where they are. We would like of course to get the best possible sense just as expeditiously as we can for our own planning purposes of how many people might still want to go. But I don't think I would hazard a guess as to how many ultimately are going to be taken out. I'd much, much, much more clearly prefer to say that we want to stay until we get out everyone who would like to leave.
QUESTION: You might have to make another run into southern Lebanon to pick up more people there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: The Embassy will monitor that situation. Again, if people are in southern Lebanon and have not registered yet, have not contacted the Embassy yet, I urge them to do so. If the Embassy sees a need for it and sees an ability to do so, given security situations, they certainly will do that. We urge American citizens to monitor this Lebanese radio station, 105.5, so that we can give them updates on that as time goes by.
QUESTION: But you've gotten everybody out that you thought was down there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: I wouldn't say that. I would say that we prepared a convoy and we -- people availed themselves of that opportunity. We need to keep an open mind and the possibility that there may still be others there, who for some reason or another, have not contacted us or have not been able to contact us.
Yesterday, I think I thanked members of Congress and other organizations who have called us to make us aware of people we were not perhaps aware of. I urge American citizens to continue to do that. We want to make sure that we do not leave somebody who needs our assistance to depart.
QUESTION: I was --
QUESTION: Barry, can I ask a question?
QUESTION: I'm sorry.
QUESTION: Thanks. Could you tell us more about this radio station? Is it a Lebanese station that is broadcasting details in English?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: You know, I actually can't -- I've got to take that question. I just don't know the answer and I should have asked it myself. I assume the Lebanese radio station is broadcasting at a minimum in Arabic, but I don't know what other language it's broadcasting in. We'll find that out for you.
QUESTION: Because if not that -- it maybe won't be so helpful for all Americans who need the information.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: You're absolutely right and that's why we offer other opportunities and other options, the other options which we've talked about for days. I mean, 105.5 is a new creative innovation that the Embassy has come up with, but it does not take the place of registering, registering, registering, of calling the Embassy, of calling us here. American citizens here in America, call us please, continue to call us on the hotline number that we've given before, 1-888-407-4747. What you see in 105.5 is an additional way of trying to inform people. Our website continues to exist. No forms of communication we have previously discussed over the last four days have gone away. This is just an additional and a new one.
QUESTION: Well, have you found that the infrastructure is holding up well enough that people do have internet and do have telephones?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: I think that we find that it is in some places intermittent, in other places it hasn't gone out, in some places perhaps it has. And what I am really so very grateful for are the number of American citizens who continue to find ways to communicate with American citizens here in the States who continue to find ways to communicate with Americans in Lebanon and who are serving very, very helpful roles as go-betweens for us, putting us in touch with people perhaps we didn't know about.
QUESTION: Well, I didn't catch enough of this person on television today who seemed kind of well-fixed and said that she spend $4,000 to get out and the implication -- and I didn't hear it that well -- was that the way -- it's difficult, the way you guys do it, it takes time, it's difficult, this waiting time. You refer to the need for patience. Are you finding people trying to find other means, people that can afford to find other means or have the right connections or --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: I have to admit, I didn't hear that story at all.
QUESTION: But she did say $4,000.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: Okay. You characterize our effort one way; I characterize it the way the General and I have characterized it for days; it's safe, secure, dependable, informed by the need to provide for the security of our citizens.
QUESTION: I wasn't criticizing -- I wasn't questioning that.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: No. But I'm taking advantage of your question to answer it.
QUESTION: She seemed to be impatient, so she found an expensive way to leave. That's all.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: I don't know, Barry, how she left. I'm glad to hear that she is safely out if that's, in fact, what the gist of the story was. And we encourage people to let us know where they are so we can help them and give them the best information on how they can get out.
QUESTION: You said the planes were at capacity, the ones that left. What is the capacity of the planes and then also --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: Many different planes, several different kinds, sizes, shape -- well, not shape so much, but sizes. (Laughter.) And I don't have much more information on the specifics of the planes, but we can try and get you something if you need to write a story.
QUESTION: And the three that left are all going to Baltimore?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: No. Several to -- they're going to Philadelphia and to BWI. I don't have that information, but we can try and get it for you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: Thank you very much.
SOURCE: U.S. Dept of State