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U.S. citizens leave the cruise ship Orient Queen at Larnaca, Cyprus, early Thursday.

U.S. citizens leave the cruise ship Orient Queen at Larnaca, Cyprus, early Thursday. (Ben Murray / S&S)

LARNACA, Cyprus — Members of the first large group of U.S. citizens to be evacuated from Beirut, Lebanon, expressed relief, exhaustion and concern for those remaining behind as they streamed off a cruise ship at Larnaca early Thursday.

The crowd of about 1,000 Americans piled off the boat at around 2 a.m. at the Cypriot port after a nine-hour ride from the embattled city, following days of anxious waiting for evacuation.

“I feel free,” said one man leading his family away from the ship, the Orient Queen, to buses waiting to shuttle the Americans onward.

“Thank God we are home,” said another.

A third expressed relief that he was American, and had the option to leave the country while many native citizens had to remain behind in the fighting.

The arrival of the evacuees Thursday marked the start of the main effort by the U.S. State Department to pull thousands of Americans out of Lebanon as fighting there continues between Israel and elements of the militant group Hezbollah.

Small groups of U.S. citizens have made their way out of the country in military helicopters and on the decks of smaller vessels, but Thursday’s group was the first in the embassy’s planned series of large evacuations using chartered cruise ships.

“We were afraid if we didn’t leave now we couldn’t leave later. There’s no telling how bad it could get,” said Nabil El-Hage, who was north of Beirut touring schools with his daughter when the fighting broke out.

Departure from Beirut was mostly orderly, said his daughter, 17-year-old Beatrice El-Hage. And there were no scenes of panic at the docks as people tried to get out.

“I think everyone who wants to get out will get out,” she said.

Some of the evacuees, such as the El-Hages and Fresno, Calif., resident, Varoujan DerSim, said they had not been in imminent danger from Israeli bombs but said Beirut had been turned into a deserted war zone.

DerSim also lauded the evacuation effort, adding that his congressman had repeatedly e-mailed him and even called him inquiring about his welfare.

Others, however, were closer to danger.

University of Texas student and Dallas resident Robert Eldabaje, 18, said he was in a house in Beirut that was damaged by bombs.

“We had to hide in the basement,” he said. He and others later fled the house, running “barefoot through a field,” and returned to find the house ruined, he said.

Evacuees departed the Orient Queen in sweltering conditions at Larnaca, where they were met by lines of buses taking them to an immigration processing center. Disembarkation was slow, taking hours after the early morning arrival of the cruise ship.

From the port, evacuees dispersed in myriad directions to rest and plan the next leg of their journeys. Some people were bused to local hotels for accommodation, others to a fairground on the outskirts of the capital, Nicosia, where temporary shelters have been set up to take in foreign citizens waiting for planes back to the states.

To get people back to the U.S., the State Department has chartered a series of commercial flights to take people free of charge to airports along the East Coast, said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy press center.

The first of those flights was scheduled to leave Larnaca airport Thursday afternoon, with two more flights following later at night and continuing the following morning to Baltimore, Newark and Philadelphia, the spokeswoman said.

Thousands more people from a host of nations are waiting in Lebanon for evacuation, though the exact number of Americans expected to be pulled out of the city wasn’t clear by Thursday morning.

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