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Wednesday, March 12, 2008       Free Headline Alerts

USS Cole back in action: Fleet near Lebanon in warning to Syria

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has sent at least three ships to patrol the coast of Lebanon as well as monitor neighboring Israel and Syria.

Officials said the force, which includes the USS Cole on its first mission since nearly being sunk by an Al Qaida attack in 2000, was intended to deter Syria or Hizbullah from toppling the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

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The USS Cole is back in action. AFP/James Elliott
"It isn't meant to send any stronger signals than that," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. "But it does signal that we're engaged, we're going to be in the vicinity, and that's a very, very important part of the world."

Officials said the fleet included the USS Cole and an amphibious assault ship, the USS Nassau, which would be the first to arrive off the coast of Lebanon.

"This is an area that is important to us, the eastern Med," Mullen said. "It's a group of ships that will operate in the vicinity there for a while."

The Cole was sent for its first mission in the Middle East since 2000, when Al Qaida attacked and nearly sunk the ship outside the port of Aden. Officials said Cole, designed for anti-aircraft and land attack missions, would be accompanied by two refueling ships.

The six-ship Nassau Expeditionary Strike Group entered the U.S. Sixth Fleet's operational area on Feb. 25, officials said. The Sixth Fleet, based in Naples, Italy. operates in the Mediterranean Sea.

Syria has been accused of blocking the parliamentary election of a Lebanese president. The Bush administration, amid a scheduled visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has been sanctioning key members of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said to be intimidating members of parliament, from voting a successor to outgoing President Emile Lahoud.

"To say it's absolutely directly tied would be incorrect," Mullen said. "But we are certainly aware that elections out there are both important, and they are due at some point in time."

Lebanese politicians have linked the U.S. Navy deployment to the crisis in Beirut. They said Siniora did not relay a formal request for the naval presence.

"It could be aimed directly at Syria or a declaration by the United States of America that it could be part of this equation that could develop if conditions remain the way they are," Lebanese parliamentarian Mustafa Alloush said.

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