Administration Mum on Ship Movements
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Reagan administration officials Friday were refusing to discuss the sudden deployment of two U.S. warships in the Mediterranean for the Middle East, but a State Department official said there were no plans to evacuate U.S. embassy staff or other Americans from Beirut.
″Not true,″ Michael Austrian of the department’s Middle East bureau said about the evacuation rumors. ″ ... We have no plans to evacuate people in Beirut.″
The American aircraft carrier Eisenhower and guided-missile cruiser Mississippi were abruptly ordered to leave Mallorca Island, Spain, for the Middle East on Thursday night, leaving behind 100 sailors in the process, U.S. sources said.
United Nations officials disclosed Wednesday that they were ordering Americans working with the U.N. peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon off the job for fear of possible attacks by Shiite Moslem militants. That decision has prompted speculation the United States might be preparing to evacuate other Americans still in the Lebanese capital.
Robert C. McFarlane, President Reagan’s national security adviser, said he didn’t know whether the Eisenhower and Mississippi were steaming toward Beirut to stand by for a possible evacuation.
Deputy White House press secretary Robert Sims said that the Eisenhower had put out from port in recent days and joined U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean. But he refused to be more specific, saying the government doesn’t discuss ship movements, and referred further inquiries to the Pentagon.
Cmdr. Jim Harnes, spokesman for the U.S. Sixth Fleet in Gaeta, Italy, said in a telephone interview that the two ships left Spain ″as a result of an operational schedule change.″ Citing long-standing rules, he said he could not elaborate.
Michael Burch, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, said he, too, could not discuss ship movements.
Defense Department sources who agreed to discuss the matter only if they were not identified agreed the ships’ sudden departure could only be described as ″unusual.″ Indeed, the Pentagon’s ″chain of command″ had been caught off-guard by the sudden deployment, said one source.
That suggests the orders to the ships may have been issued by top-ranking U.S. military leaders in Europe as a possible precautionary measure, the source explained.
″The news media is reporting the U.N. will vote on Monday on this Lebanese resolution and that there could be reprisals against Americans if the U.S. vetoes the resolution,″ said another source. ″And this is the only carrier we have in the Mediterranean.″
The Lebanese resolution now pending before the U.N. Security Council criticizes the current Israeli crackdown on the Shiite-led guerrilla movement in southern Lebanon and punitive raids on Shiite villages there. Local newspapers in Lebanon have reported the American ambassador, Reginald Bartholomew, has already informed the Lebanese government the United States will veto the resolution if the Lebanese press it, reportedly stirring widespread resentment.
The State Department’s Austrian said he understood there were not enough votes for the resolution to pass to begin with, so that it did not look as if there would be any need for a U.S. veto.
While he acknowledged the United States was aware of ″placards and shouts″ concerning the possibility of retaliation against Americans in Beirut if the resolution were vetoed, Austrian said: ″I don’t know that we have had any specific threats.″
Austrian refused to give precise figures on how many Americans remained in Beirut. He denied a Washington Post report that seven Americans were working in the embassy, saying it was many more than that but still a minimal operation.
″We are working with a minimum staff,″ he said. ″We have not evacuated all our people at any point.″
As for Americans unaffiliated with the government, he said he guessed there were at least a couple of hundred, but that some of those are married to Lebanese and would not leave. ″We cannot force them to leave,″ he said.
The Eisenhower and Mississippi had not been scheduled to end their port call to Mallorca until late Sunday or early Monday, said a Navy source.
Defense Department and Navy officials refused to say whether any other U.S. Navy ships were already at sea off the coast of Lebanon.