Three Hampton Roads-based warships reversed course this weekend and were steaming back to the eastern Mediterranean Sea today as U.S. officials kept a close eye on the escalating conflict between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza.
The amphibious warships Iwo Jima, New York and Gunston Hall were scheduled to return next week but instead will remain on standby, said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, a Navy spokesman.
Sources told CNN that the ships could be needed in the event Americans are evacuated from Israel in the coming days, though officials said evacuation remains a remote possibility.
"I really want to emphasize that no active mission planning is underway," Servello said. "This really is about due diligence."
Some 2,400 Marines and 2,000 sailors were expected to return to Norfolk and Virginia Beach next week following an eight-month deployment. The ships had just crossed through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Atlantic Ocean when they received the orders this weekend to turn around, Servello said.
The Navy has been working with family support groups in Norfolk to notify loved ones of the change in plans. No return date has been announced.
"We know they're at the end of a long and successful deployment, and we want to get them back from that as soon as possible," Servello said.
The ships left from Norfolk Naval Station and Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in March for what was billed as a six-month deployment.
Accompanying the sailors were the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
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