The U.S. navy is sending three ships to the eastern Mediterranean Sea in a show of strength during a period of tensions with Syria and political uncertainty in Lebanon.
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters the deployment should not be viewed as threatening or in response to events in any single country in that volatile region. Syria borders the eastern Mediterranean, as does Lebanon.
"This is an area that is important to us, the eastern Med," Mullen said when asked in Washington about news reports of the ship movements. "It's a group of ships that will operate in the vicinity there for a while.
"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," he added.
The ships include a navy guided missile destroyer, the USS Cole, accompanied by two refuelling ships, according to another military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because full details about the ship movements are not yet public.
The Cole is equipped to engage in a variety of offensive actions, including anti-aircraft and land attack missions.
The decision to send the ships comes as international frustration mounts over a long political deadlock in Lebanon. The country's presidential election has been delayed 15 times, and just this week the date was pushed back to March 11.
The U.S. blames Syria for the impasse, saying Syria has never given up its
ambitions to control its smaller neighbour.
Michel Aoun, a leader of the Syrian-backed opposition in Beirut, said the ship movements looked like a calculated show of force by the U.S.
"There is no need for it," Aoun said in a televised interview.
The Cole was rebuilt after nearly being sunk in a terrorist attack in Aden, Yemen, in October 2000 that killed 17 sailors aboard. It was recommissioned in April 2002 and went on its first post-attack deployment in November 2003.
Its homeport is Norfolk, Va., but it will sail to the eastern Mediterranean Sea from Malta.