July 17, 2006 — -- The United States is significantly increasing its efforts to assist Americans who want to escape the increasingly violent situation in Lebanon.
The military has contracted with a Lebanese passenger vessel to begin transporting as many as 750 passengers to Cyprus.
The United States is also telling Americans that once in Cyprus, they can board a commercial aircraft back to the United States.
The vessel, a commercial cruise ship called the Orient Queen, will be escorted by the Navy destroyer USS Gonzalez when it pulls out Tuesday.
One-way transit by the Orient Queen from the coast of Lebanon to Cyprus will take about five hours, a U.S. official said.
Once in Cyprus, citizens will have to sign a promissory note if they opt to fly to the United States, and get billed later.
Eventually, additional ships may be contracted if needed, according to U.S. officials.
The State Department has said there are about 25,000 Americans in Lebanon, but a smaller number -- about 15,000 -- had registered with the embassy as living or traveling in Lebanon.
One of those Americans, Susan Jreige of Boston, told ABC News, "Everyone's very anxious."
"Especially when you don't know what will happen to the situation … if you can't get out," she said.
Back home, her father told us he is also anxious and upset.
"We tried to reach the government, the State Department, the White House to try to get them out," Bill Audy said. "Every other country in the world has been evacuating their citizens."
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters today that the United States would "continue to build the capacity to meet the State Department's requests over the next couple of days."
He also added that the United States was taking all precautionary measures to ensure the safety of Americans who had chosen not to leave.
Until now, the United States had only conducted airlift operations from the U.S. Embassy to Cyprus for Americans with special needs: those requiring medical attention, the elderly and unaccompanied students.
The most recent air evacuation took place today when two helicopters transported 43 Americans from the U.S. embassy in Beirut.
"The airlift is not the most efficient way to take out large numbers," Whitman said. "So obviously that [cruise ship] gives you the ability to take out a lot more people at a time."
Working in cooperation with U.S. embassies in Lebanon and Cyprus, U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen is leading U.S. military coordination efforts from Cyprus out of the Larnaca British air base.
The three helicopters now based in Cyprus are normally aboard the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship currently cruising the Red Sea.
The 2,200 Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, who travel aboard the USS Iwo Jima and other ships, have wrapped up their scheduled military exercises in Jordan.
They are now loading their gear back aboard the ships in possible preparation to assist with the evacuation effort.