Threats by right-wing Lebanese Christians to kidnap American hostages and shoot down U.S. helicopters forced the Bush Administration to stage a dramatic dawn withdrawal of Ambassador John McCarthy and 29 American diplomats from Beirut, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that Wednesday morning's evacuation, approved personally by President Bush, "doesn't mean we are abandoning Lebanon."
Even so, senior U.S. officials conceded that the withdrawal at least temporarily ends American diplomatic efforts to defuse Beirut's escalating political and military crisis.
A State Department official predicted that it would "probably be months" before the U.S. contemplates a return to the embassy, near the presidential palace in Christian-dominated East Beirut.
After years of anti-American violence by Muslim extremists, including suicide bombings and hostage seizures, the evacuation was, ironically, the product of pressure by right-wing Christians.
About 1,000 supporters of Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, Lebanon's army commander and acting premier, laid siege to the embassy Tuesday, demanding American recognition of Aoun as the sole legitimate authority in Lebanon and seeking U.S. intervention to persuade Syria to lift its five-month blockade of East Beirut.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said the United States had been informed by "reliable journalists" in Beirut that Aoun had threatened to expose the Americans to "a good dose of Christian terrorism" to press the demands made by his supporters.
Aoun also told Le Figaro, a French newspaper, that he had considered taking 20 Americans hostage.
Tutwiler said that one of the leaders of the U.S. Embassy siege had warned that American personnel would enter or leave the mission "at their own risk."
An anonymous caller also threatened to shoot down one of the U.S. military helicopters that ferry supplies and personnel between Lebanon and Cyprus.
The helicopter evacuation from the embassy grounds came after a series of meetings between Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and other leading Administration officials. Baker himself was the chairman of at least eight meetings on the crisis, Tutwiler said.
Aoun, however, asserted in a conversation with Abdullah Bouhabib, the Lebanese ambassador to the United States, that he had no intention of threatening American lives, Bouhabib said in an interview.
"If I wanted to take hostages, I would not have allowed the Americans to leave," Bouhabib quoted Aoun as having told him. "We value the American presence. The demonstrations were not anti-American. They were held because we wanted greater American involvement."
Bouhabib said he informed the State Department before the evacuation decision was made that there was no danger to American diplomats. He said he told officials that Aoun denied having threatened to expose Americans to "a good dose of Christian terrorism."
Bouhabib said he also told the State Department that Aoun wanted to avoid the potentially dangerous repercussions of an American evacuation, "which may lead neighboring countries to think that they can do whatever they want." He was referring indirectly to the possibility that Muslim militias and their Syrian army allies could close in on Christian East Beirut.
McCarthy and the 29 staff members were flown by three U.S. military Blackhawk helicopters from the heavily fortified hilltop compound at Aoukar, a Beirut suburb, to the British air base of Akrotiri on Cyprus, and then, according to press reports, to a U.S. air base in West Germany.
Flown Out by DC-9
Reports in Cyprus said McCarthy and other American diplomats and security personnel left Akrotiri on an American government DC-9 at noon.
According to an Associated Press report from Beirut, quoting anonymously a Lebanese army officer, the embassy had notified Aoun on Tuesday of its intention to evacuate its personnel.
If Aoun received the message, he made no public response. Once the Americans had left, however, he told reporters: "I am not at all surprised by the apparently precipitous departure. Such petulant behavior by Mr. McCarthy reflects the nature and conduct of the U.S. State Department's policy towards that part of Lebanon free of Syrian occupation."
Aoun told a Christian radio station, "It seems the American Cain couldn't endure the stare of the Lebanese Abel, so he left."
U.S. officials hope that the embassy withdrawal might force Aoun to back down. "We hope that the action will precipitate something that will allow us to return," a State Department analyst said.
'Hurdles to Overcome'
"But realistically, we have great hurdles to overcome," the analyst said. "First, we have to be able to carry out our mission. The shelling over the past five months made it impossible for us to talk to people on the ground. Second, the provocations--the things that Aoun has said over the past week and the actions taken by demonstrators Tuesday--became a physical threat. Both situations will have to change, and the threat against Americans is going to have to be reduced."
Administration sources contended that the move was not the final step of a gradual reduction of the U.S. presence in Lebanon, beginning with the withdrawal of a U.S. Marine peacekeeping force in 1984 after a suicide bomber killed 241 U.S. troops.
Since then, the United States has decreased the size of its diplomatic mission, which reached a high of 190 in 1983, to fewer than three dozen. At each stage, security reasons--including the bombings of two U.S. Embassy facilities and the abduction of at least 17 Americans--were cited as the cause of temporary cutbacks.
'We're Not Disengaging'
"There is no thought here that this is the final phase," a senior Administration source said. "We are not disengaging from Lebanon. There is no change in our Lebanon policy."
After the spate of attacks by Muslim extremists in West Beirut, he said, "we retreated into East Beirut, and we relied on the Christians to protect us. But when they began threatening us, it was time to go."
He did not rule out the possibility of an approach by Aoun over the next few days. "We don't think he wanted to chase us out," the source said. "We think he didn't think through his statements."
The current phase of Lebanon's 14-year civil war has reached new heights because of two turning points, both involving the controversial Lebanese army commander.
The first was the appointment of Aoun as acting premier by outgoing President Amin Gemayel a year ago, after Lebanon's Parliament was unable to meet and elect a new chief of state. Aoun's appointment was contested by Muslim Premier Salim Hoss and other Muslim factions, which formed a rival government.
Effort Is Unsuccessful
The last major U.S. initiative in Lebanon was an attempt last year to ensure a presidential election. After that effort was unsuccessful, Washington recognized neither Aoun's nor Hoss' government.
The second turning point was an attempt by Aoun last March to reexert sovereignty over all Lebanon by blockading illegal ports run by both Christian and Muslim militias. The Muslim militias, backed by Syrian troops, responded with a blockade of East Beirut and increasingly intense artillery exchanges.
Beirut has since become a ghost town, with an estimated 80% of the population fleeing to safer areas outside the capital. More than 800 people have been killed and 2,400 injured since March, according to Lebanese police.
Times staff writer Nick B. Williams Jr., in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this report.
AMERICA'S DWINDLING PRESENCE IN LEBANON
A chronology of the U.S. involvement in Lebanon:
July 15, 1958--President Dwight D. Eisenhower sends U.S. Marines to Beirut at request of Christian President Camille Chamoun to quell uprising by Muslims. Marines are not involved in combat and are quietly withdrawn soon afterward.
Aug. 25, 1982--After Israel's June invasion of Lebanon, 800 U.S. Marines, part of 5,400-member peacekeeping force with British, French and Italian units, go ashore to oversee evacuation of Israeli, Syrian and PLO forces from Beirut. U.S. force is later increased to 1,800.
April 18, 1983--Shiite Muslim suicide bomber rams explosives-packed van into seaside U.S. Embassy in West Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans.
Oct. 23, 1983--Shiite suicide bomber attacks U.S. Marine base near Beirut's airport, killing 241 men. Another bomber hits French paratroop base, killing 58.
Dec. 5, 1983--U.S. Navy fighter-bombers attack Syrian missile and artillery batteries in Lebanon, inflicting "significant damage," after reconnaissance planes are fired on.
Dec. 14, 1983--With situation deteriorating, battleship New Jersey supports Lebanese army by bombarding Muslim positions with 250 shells from its 16-inch guns.
Feb. 26, 1984--As Lebanon's civil war breaks out again, Marines are pulled back to U.S. warships off Beirut, beginning final withdrawal after an ill-fated 22-month peacekeeping operation in which 264 U.S. service personnel died.
Sept. 20, 1984--Suicide bomber hits U.S. Embassy annex outside East Beirut, killing 14 people and wounding dozens, including U.S. ambassador.
Sept. 6, 1989--Staff of U.S. Embassy is evacuated after hundreds of Christian protesters besiege facility to demand that United States help Christians in their six-month-old battle with Syrian forces.
Source: Associated Press