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U.S. State Department and military officials called off the Navy’s participation in an annual Black Sea exercise after the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry was needed instead for the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Lebanon, officials said Wednesday.

And without the U.S. destroyer’s participation, the entire Sea Breeze 2006 exercise, which included navies from Ukraine, Georgia, Greece and Turkey, had to be canceled, said Molly Stephenson, a spokeswoman from the U.S. Embassy in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.

“Because of operational commitments, the U.S. [European Command] withdrew the use of the USS Barry … and as a result, they were unable to move forward on Sea Breeze,” said Stephenson in a phone interview, referring to the other participating nations.

Three U.S. Navy combatant ships serving in the Mediterranean Sea have been rerouted to help in the evacuation of thousands of U.S. citizens, joining the five-ship USS Iwo Jima Strike Group.

Conflict erupted last week after Hezbollah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, prompting Israeli military strikes that included the bombing of Beirut’s airport, which prevented some from fleeing Lebanon.

The Sea Breeze exercise was supposed to have started Wednesday and was to last through July 28.

The Barry, along with the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez, instead were ordered late Monday off the coast of Lebanon to escort ships leased by the State Department to ferry evacuees from Lebanon to Cyprus, about 40 miles away.

The Gonzalez had just left the 5th Fleet area of operations and was on its way home to Virginia.

While the destroyers’ main mission typically is to provide air defense, “we are prepared to deal with any contingency that might arise,” the commander of the Barry, Cmdr. Jeffrey Wolstenholme, said Wednesday in a satellite telephone interview.

For example, on Tuesday, the Gonzalez served hot meals to evacuees, Wolstenholme said.

As it stands, the two destroyers will be used to provide a protected escort for the State Department-leased ships, he said. If necessary, the Barry could accommodate evacuees, with “finding space” among the 300-sailor crew presenting the biggest challenge, he said.

Wolstenholme said he did not know how long the Barry would be needed for the evacuation efforts. It left its homeport of Norfolk, Va., in mid-May for a routine six-month deployment.

Also, the Europe-based USS Mount Whitney, designed to serve as an at-sea command-and-control ship with its state-of-the-art communications equipment, is headed to the eastern Mediterranean. It is expected to be used by commanders in the area, said Lt. Chris Servello, a 6th Fleet spokesman.

The Mount Whitney, homeported in Gaeta, Italy, south of Rome, serves as the 6th Fleet’s flagship. It is run by about 330 Navy sailors and civilian mariners of the Military Sealift Command.

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