The amphibious transport dock ship New York (LPD 21) follows the multipurpose amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima (LHD 7), foreground, as they transit the Suez Canal. The Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group and embarked 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit had their deployment extended after cross-border fighting broke out between Israel and Palestine. (MCS 2nd Class Travis J. Kuykendall / Navy)
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More than 4,000 Marines and sailors deployed in the Mediterranean were ordered to remain in the region amid continued unrest in the Middle East, officials announced Monday.
The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, embarked on the three-ship Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, was ordered late last week to "stay in theater until otherwise directed," the 24th MEU said Monday in a statement posted on its official http://www.facebook.com/24thMEU">Facebook page.
The announcement came just weeks before the 24th MEU, which left North Carolina on March 29, and its three Norfolk, Va.-based ships were expected home from its eight-month deployment.
However, the past week has seen deadly airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli forces are battling Hamas militants in cross-border attacks some fear will result in an Israeli ground invasion. Israel is amassing tanks and armored vehicles along the border.
It's unclear what missions the 24th MEU and Iwo Jima ARG will be asked to do while extended in the 6th Fleet region.
"There are no specific plans for the 24th MEU or Iwo ARG to be employed but their continued presence in the region is a prudent measure to allow the Navy/Marine Corps team to respond to any crisis or contingency, if directed," officials said in the release.
The 24th MEU, as one of seven MEUs that deploy globally with Navy amphibious ready groups, get trained for some two-dozen missions, which range from embassy evacuations and disaster response to maritime security missions and amphibious raids.
The MEU spent about six months in the U.S. Central Command region, including the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf, and returned to the Mediterranean earlier this month.
Just last week, Marines and sailors aboard the Iwo Jima made a liberty port visit to Rota, Spain, often a last stop before the final push home across the Atlantic.
The 2,300-member 24th MEU is commanded by Col. Frank Donovan. Navy Capt. Arturo M. Garcia, commander of Amphibious Squadron 8, leads the Iwo Jima ARG, which includes amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima, dock landing ship Gunston Hall and transport dock New York.
The 26th MEU is the next East Coast unit in the rotation to deploy overseas in 2013 and presumably would replace the 24th MEU in the Mediterranean. The 26th continues to conduct pre-deployment training with the Wasp ARG.
Earlier this month, the 26th MEU deployed to New York to assist in Hurricane Sandy disaster relief efforts with the National Guard's Task Force-New York.
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