ABOARD THE USS NASHVILLE (Reuters) - U.S. Marines waded ashore on a Beirut beach on Thursday and evacuated about 1,000 Americans to Cyprus, where thousands of foreigners have fled to escape Israeli air strikes against Lebanon.
About 40 lightly armed Marines, aided by Lebanese soldiers, helped 1,052 Americans, including many children, to a troop carrier that set sail for the eastern Mediterranean island as two big booms shook the Beirut coastline.
Soothed by classical music from the USS Nashville's loudspeakers, evacuees on the ship's main deck appeared relieved their ordeal was ending.
"It was total chaos," said Hisam Ajouz, 18, from Dearborn, Michigan. "Everyone was trying to shove their way to the (U.S.) checkpoint. Women were screaming that they had babies and old people looked like they were on the verge of collapse."
The Americans are among thousands pouring into Cyprus since Israeli air raids began nine days ago, including scores of young children, the old and infirm.
Authorities expect many more to arrive by military and civilian ships to the island, which is struggling to cope at the peak of its tourist season and asked its EU partners for help in dealing with the crisis.
U.S. officials have said they can evacuate 6,000 people by Friday, the British have sent a warship to bring about 2,000 out early on Friday and several countries said they were bringing home thousands more.
"What we are trying to do is get people on two charter flights tonight and that's going reasonably smoothly," U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus Ronald Schlicher told reporters at a reception facility set up at a fairground near the capital Nicosia, now hosting about 700.
"After we move these folks, we will have an even bigger wave in the next couple of days. We are trying to calibrate the best we can the inflow and the outflow," he added.
Three ships docked at the Cypriot port of Larnaca late on Wednesday, bringing in over 1,300 people, mostly Americans. A French ship with 900 evacuees arrived on Thursday, two Greek navy frigates were due to bring about 800 foreigners and an Italian warship about 400 Italians.
Helicopters clattered overhead and forklift trucks unloaded baggage, as a woman with a bandaged arm was taken off a cruise liner on a stretcher and put straight into an ambulance.
While many were fleeing by sea, tens of thousands of Lebanese, as well as foreigners, have braved the road to Syria.
Washington said nine military ships, including a helicopter carrier were involved in its massive evacuation operation.
The Marines were back in Lebanon nearly 23 years after a Shi'ite Muslim suicide bomber blew up their barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 220 Marines and 21 other service personnel.
"We are here to help people," said Petty Officer Eric Walker, 36, from Canton, Mississippi. "It's one of the reasons I joined the military."
American evacuees expressed anger at the ferocity of Israel's offensive on Lebanon after Hizbollah captured and killed Israeli soldiers in a cross border raid on July 12.
"What Israel is doing is terrible," said Ahmed Temsah, 55, from Chicago, aboard the USS Nashville. "If you want to go after Hizbollah, then beat them to the ground, please. But don't kill innocent people. It's a tragedy women and children are dying."
Many evacuees, some holding back tears, said they were concerned about the families they were forced to leave behind.
"They're blowing up a beautiful country and hurting wonderful people," said Billy Broeckelmann, 44, from Sugarland, Texas. "It's not right."
"I'm going but leaving my heart in my country and my village," Mustapha Safieddine, a 48-year-old father of three who holds French citizenship, said with a choking voice.
He was among 550 people boarding small boats ferrying them to a French ship in the southern Lebanese port of Tyre, scene of some of the fiercest Israeli air strikes.
(Additional reporting by David Clarke and Michele Kambas in Cyprus, bureaux)
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