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Americans find haven in Cyprus
2006-07-20 16:23:00

By David Clarke

LARNACA, Cyprus (Reuters) - Hundreds of Americans and other foreign nationals fleeing Israeli air strikes that have pummeled Lebanon for eight days found safe haven in Cyprus on Thursday.

About 40 U.S. Marines landed on a beach near Beirut at dawn to rescue about 1,200 Americans during the course of the day.

The lightly armed Marines came ashore at dawn in a landing craft, which they will use to ferry up to 400 people per trip to a troop carrier anchored offshore that will take the evacuees to Cyprus.

"We are here to help people," said Petty Officer Eric Walker, 36, from Canton, Mississippi, as the Marines returned to a city where 241 Marines and other U.S. service personnel died in a 1982 guerrilla truck bombing.

Three ships docked in the port of Larnaca in Cyprus late on Wednesday -- a U.S.-chartered cruise liner carrying 1,044 people, mostly Americans, a United Nations ship with an unknown number aboard and a French ship with 320 on board. Another French ship with 900 French evacuees arrived on Thursday morning.

The U.S. ambassador to Cyprus said the operation to bring American citizens out of the stricken city of Beirut was just beginning, with thousands more expected over the coming days.

"Over the next couple of days you are going to be seeing a very large influx," Ambassador Ronald Schlicher told reporters at the quayside. "Maybe five, maybe six, maybe seven (thousand), I think we just have to wait and see."

As helicopters clattered overhead and forklift trucks unloaded baggage, a woman with a bandaged arm was taken off the Orient Queen cruise liner on a stretcher and put straight into an ambulance, while an elderly man was disembarked in a wheelchair.

Nabil El-Hage, 47, a professor of management science at Harvard Business School, said: "I feel really sad, I really do. I have two countries. I have my country of birth and my adopted country and I love both. I hate to see Lebanon destroyed".

Eight-year-old Ali Makki, from Michigan, said he had been frightened by bombs dropped near his building. "The thing I was scared the most about was when they shot the bombs on our building."

Kamil Saber, who lives in New Jersey, gave his reasons for leaving: "It wasn't the fear it was just the restriction of movement. We'll be back. We'll all be back next year".

The Americans, the biggest group of U.S. citizens to have been evacuated from Lebanon so far, were taken on buses to a facility prepared for them at the Nicosia fairground. Many were expected to board two charter flights to Baltimore on Thursday.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in Europe for a trip, ordered his official Airbus plane to be diverted to Cyprus on Wednesday to pick up Canadians. The first ship chartered by Canada left Beirut with evacuees at about 7:30 p.m. British time on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Michael Winfrey and Michele Kambas in Cyprus, bureaus)

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