An estimated 25,000 Americans are there. Some 15,000 have registered with the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, but evidently not all are trying to get out.
"Our planning assumptions are on the order of thousands," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday. "You don't actually know how many people are going to want to leave until you actually start the larger-scale operations."
No one knows how many Americans will show up once the embassy in Lebanon puts out the word, but the State Department's high-end estimate is 4,000-5,000, reports CBS News. If the operation goes smoothly, that many people could be evacuated by the end of the week.
The operation began slowly. By late Monday only 64 were known to have departed.
One ship in Beirut's port Monday — a Greek ferry organized by the French government to take out foreign citizens considered vulnerable — waited to evacuate more than 1,000 people, CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports.
A seat on the chartered vessel was the hottest ticket in the war-torn town. As the first busses of passengers pulled up, unrelentless Israeli jets could be heard in Beirut's southern suburbs, Palmer reports. Thirty-seven Americans.
Also, the U.S. military began evacuating small numbers of Americans with "special needs" — age, illness, etc. — by helicopter to Cyprus, but it will be Tuesday at the earliest before large-scale evacuations can begin, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports.
U.S. government officials, basing their estimates on similar situations in the past, say the range of Americans planning to leave could range from 10 percent of those in the country up to 100 percent.
Most other countries have a far less difficult evacuation task since they have fewer of their people in Lebanon. Convoys of buses have been used effectively.
CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters took 21 Americans from the U.S. Embassy compound to a British military base in Cyprus and more flights were taking place Monday, he said.
The U.S. government is discouraging travel by land to the Lebanon-Syria border. Two of the three major roads have been bombed severely, Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, told CNN. And Syria denied entry to some Americans who got to the border.
"We did not think that was a wise way to counsel people to leave the country," she said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said a commercial ship, the Orient Queen, had been contracted to ferry evacuating Americans to Cyprus. He said it could carry 750 people at a time. A U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Gonzales, will be available to escort the Orient Queen, he said.
Get the latest information from the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon.
An American student abroad describes his frantic escape from Lebanon.
France, which has more than 20,000 citizens in Lebanon, chartered a Greek ferry to pick up as many as 1,200 French and other European citizens in Lebanon, CBS News correspondent Elaine Cobbe reports from Paris. Hundreds of French, mostly of Lebanese origin or partners in mixed marriages, were expected to begin boarding the ferry late Monday.
"Who knows when this will end," said Habib al-Saad, who was seeing his three sons off. "If any of our Arab leaders had a brain, this would have been resolved a long time ago. But they don't," said al-Saad as his sons, Marwan, 20, Thomas, 17, and Pierre, 10, looking bewildered and anxious, listened to their father in silence.
Most of the first Americans to depart were removed by U.S. helicopters, some of which flew to a British base on Cyprus.
At the State Department, McCormack said the cost of a massive evacuation was beyond U.S. resources. He said evacuated Americans would be asked to pay commercial rates, and if they did not have the money, to promise to pay in the future.
"Everybody who wishes to leave will be able to leave," he promised.
The U.S. Embassy advised Americans to carry a valid passport, a birth certificate and marriage or other civil documents. Each traveler is limited to one suitcase weighing up to 30 pounds. Pets will not be allowed to travel.
The embassy is not being evacuated, Harty said in an ABC News interview. But dependents of U.S. personnel who have chosen to leave will be able to depart, she said.
Two organizations, one Arab-American and the other Muslim-American, criticized the slow start and that the United States was not promoting a cease-fire.
"The absence of American leadership to secure a cease-fire and protect its own citizens is appalling," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said, "The highest duty of any president is to protect the lives of Americans."
Many of the U.S. citizens in Lebanon are Arab-Americans making regular summer pilgrimages to visit family members.