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U.S. Will Likely Evacuate Beirut Soon

A White House official told CBS News the State Department is authorizing "departure status" for non-emergency U.S. Embassy personnel in Beirut.

U.S. security teams arrived by helicopter Sunday at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut to start planning the evacuation of Americans from Lebanon.

Two helicopters flew in from over the Mediterranean and landed on the embassy grounds, located on a fortified hilltop in the north Beirut suburb of Aukar, witnesses said.

"The arrival of the teams is an important first step in facilitating the safe departure of Americans who want to leave Lebanon," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

It said the teams would arrange for "secure transportation for American citizens who wish to depart Lebanon." There are an estimated 25,000 Americans living or working in Lebanon, but U.S. officials said they assume that far fewer would choose to leave.

The United States said Saturday it was working on a plan to evacuate American citizens from Lebanon to the neighboring island of Cyprus.

Israeli airstrikes targeting runways have closed down Beirut's international airport. Israel also imposed a naval blockade on the country and has made road travel dangerous by targeting the main highway between Lebanon and neighboring Syria.

"We obviously have plans and contingency plans should we need to bring people out," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters at the Group of Eight summit Sunday. "I get reports on this every couple of hours as to how this is going. Our ambassador who is on the ground will obviously do what we need to protect Americans."

Click here for information from the U.S. State Department about Americans in Lebanon.

Waves of warplanes bombed Lebanon Sunday, and Hezbollah guerillas continued to fire rockets into Israel. The rockets pounded the northern Israeli city of Haifa in the worst strike on Israel since violence broke out along the border with Lebanon last week.

Former U.S. ambassador Ned Walker, who has helped coordinate a number of evacuations in the Mideast, told CBS News correspondent Joie Chen that embassies are prepared in advance for emergency evacuations.

The State Department said Friday that Americans in Lebanon should consider leaving when it was safe to do so. Officials made contingency plans to evacuate people who cannot leave on their own. Family members and non-emergency American employees of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon have been given permission to leave.

"We've already allowed authorized departures of some of our personnel in the embassy," Rice said on Fox News Sunday.

Some 17,000 French citizens reside in Lebanon and 4,000 to 6,000 others are visiting, he said.

A convoy of 410 Italians and others, mainly from the EU, packed up and fled on Saturday, traveling by land to Latakia, Syria.

In addition to French residents, up to 6,000 other Europeans were estimated to be in Lebanon. Germany, meanwhile, urged an estimated 1,100 German citizens in Lebanon to stay put but avoid unnecessary travel and stay away from potential Israeli targets such as airports and harbors.

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