WASHINGTON - The State Department is set to evacuate U.S. citizens from Egypt on chartered planes, but is relying largely on friends and families in the U.S. to relay that information to stranded Americans.
The charters were flying out of Cairo and Assistant Secretary of State Janice Jacobs said the U.S. was looking at Athens, Greece; Istanbul, Turkey; and Nicosia, Cyprus, as destinations.
The U.S. Embassy in Cyprus said the first flights were expected to arrive there early Monday.
Jacobs told reporters Sunday that she expects it will take several flights over the coming days to handle the number of Americans who want to leave Egypt, where rioters are threatening to overturn the ruling regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Jacobs acknowledged that Internet interruptions in Egypt are making it difficult for Americans there to get information about the evacuations. But she said they have been able to get information from people in the United States who do have access to State Department and embassy websites.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed for an orderly transition to lasting democracy in Egypt even as escalating violence threatened Mideast stability. She refused to speculate on Mubarak's future and his teetering government, but said U.S. officials "obviously want to see people who are truly committed to democracy, not to imposing any ideology on Egyptians."
She warned Sunday against a takeover resembling the one in Iran, with a "small group that doesn't represent the full diversity of Egyptian society" seizing control and imposing its ideological beliefs.
Though the U.S. military is closely watching developments, the Defense Department has not been asked to involve itself in the State Department's evacuation plan, Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman, said Monday.
That presumably could change if the threat to Americans in Egypt were to become too great and if it becomes impossible for citizens to get out of the country commercially.
The U.S. wants to see "real democracy" emerge in Egypt, Clinton said, "not a democracy for six months or a year and then evolving into essentially a military dictatorship or a so-called democracy that then leads to what we saw in Iran."
Clinton. who was interviewed on five Sunday morning news shows, made clear there are no discussions at this time about cutting off aid to Egypt, which receives about $1.5 billion in annual foreign assistance from the U.S. to help modernize its armed forces and strengthen regional security and stability. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had said Friday that military and civilian aid was under review.
Jacobs said the U.S. will have enough flights to take out all American citizens and dependents who want to leave. And the U.S. may also send charter planes to other cities in Egypt, such as Luxor, if there are a number of Americans stranded there. She said Americans with tickets on commercial airlines should first contact those carriers about getting out.
Americans taking the charter will be billed for the cost of the flight and will need to make their own travel arrangements home after arriving in Europe.
According to the State Department there are about 52,000 Americans registered with the embassy in Cairo. Officials noted, however, that many people don't register - or deregister when they leave - and some Americans may not want to leave.
Americans looking for information on the flights should monitor the State Department and embassy websites or send an e-mail to egyptemergencyusc(at)state.gov. They can also call toll-free, 1-888-407-4747, from within the U.S. and Canada. From outside the U.S. and Canada people can call 1-202-501-4444.