The Orient Queen docked in Beirut July 18 to help evacuate U.S. citizens from Lebanon as fighting with Israel intensified.

The ship will take people to the island-nation of Cyprus at first light, said Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a spokesman at the U.S. Dept. of Defense.

The U.S. Defense Dept. contracted the vessel, formerly Festival Cruises Bolero, from Lebanese cruise operator, Abou Merhi Cruises. The Orient Queen will operate as a ferry between Beirut and Cyprus, Ballesteros said, and the 150-mile trip will take a surprisingly long eight to 10 hours to reach its destination.

Ballesteros said the DOD contracted with a second cruise ship, the Rahmah, and is looking at others. The Rahmah, a 1,400-person ship owned and operated by Saudi company Namma International Trading Industry Services, will also act as a ferry between Beirut and Cyprus.

The DOD said that the U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Gonzalez, will provide security for the Orient Queen on its ferry journeys. Prior to the Lebanon-Israel conflict, there were an estimated 25,000 American citizens in Lebanon.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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