Peacekeeping force begins to take shape

Sunday, September 3, 2006

TYRE, Lebanon -- The beefed-up peacekeeping force in Lebanon began to take shape Saturday as 1,000 Italian soldiers started moving in, the first large contingent of international troops dispatched to help safeguard a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

With Israel apparently racing to destroy Hezbollah arms caches ahead of its impending withdrawal, the U.N. force commander said the truce is still "fragile" and warned any incident could quickly escalate.

The deployment of the peacekeepers has been delayed since the cease-fire began on Aug. 14, in part because it took time to hammer out details over the troops' mandate and persuade hesitant countries to offer troops for what was seen as a potentially risky mission: getting between Israel and Hezbollah.

The full 15,000-member force has not been assembled yet, but with several major Europeans countries on board with contributions, more pledges were coming in.

Mainly Muslim Indonesia announced it will send up to 1,000 soldiers by month's end after Israel dropped objections to its participation in the force. The United States, Europe and Israel have been eager to have Muslim troops among the peacekeepers to show it is not a solely Christian force -- but Israel had opposed Indonesia's taking part because it does not have relations with the Jewish state.

Turkey's prime minister, meanwhile, was trying to ensure that parliament approves his government's promise to send troops amid strong public opposition. Recep Tayyip Erdogan assured Turks the soldiers would not be disarming Hezbollah militants.

"When such a thing is requested from our soldiers, then we will withdraw our soldiers," Erdogan told reporters Saturday.

The U.N. cease-fire resolution calls for Hezbollah to eventually be disarmed, but doesn't mandate the peacekeepers to do it.

Instead, the force -- along with the 15,000 Lebanese troops now moving into the south -- will ensure a buffer zone along the Israeli-Lebanese border is free of open Hezbollah fighters and arms, up to the Litani river about 18 miles to the north.

At the same time, Lebanese troops on the border with Syria are supposed to prevent new weapons shipments to Hezbollah. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday that Syria -- Hezbollah's ally -- promised to patrol its side of the frontier to prevent arms deliveries, though Israel was skeptical it would really do so.

Annan on Saturday was in Iran, another top patron of Hezbollah and believed by many to be its top arms supplier, to press its leadership to ensure no weapons go to Hezbollah, as the U.N. cease-fire resolution requires all nations to do.

After talks with Annan, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki gave a vague promise to uphold the resolution, saying, "Iran has supported the Lebanese consensus on the resolution." He did not specifically address the weapons issue.

Despite the lack of a mandate to disarm guerrillas, French Gen. Alain Pellegrini, who commands the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL, said the expanded international force marked a break from a past in which peacekeepers stood helplessly by as conflicts repeatedly flared.

"The previous UNIFIL is dead and the new one is very different," Pellegrini told reporters as black Italian military zodiac boats came ashore outside the southern port city of Tyre. "It is strengthened with stronger rules of engagement. We will have more people, more equipment. We have the possibility to use force to implement our mission."

The new troops are augmenting the 2,000-member UNIFIL force that has been in the area for decades.

Disarming Hezbollah "is a national issue and this has to be solved by the Lebanese authorities," Pellegrini said. "My mission is to keep a well defined area, which is between the Litani River and the Blue Line, clear of any weapons."

Israel's devastating offensive on Lebanon was triggered when Hezbollah guerrillas snatched two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12.

Hezbollah has vowed not to lay down its weapons and its fighters have melted away into the civilian population. The Lebanese army has made no moves to disarm them.

Israel has been destroying Hezbollah arms caches in territories it still occupies in the south, Pellegrini said.

On Friday, the Israeli military said its forces had demolished an unspecified number of Hezbollah bunkers that contained rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortar shells and communications equipment near the Lebanese border village of Aita al-Shaab.

Pellegrini said such actions violated the truce, as do reconnaissance missions by Israeli jets over Lebanese air space.

"The cease-fire is holding for the moment ... but it's fragile, any incident can escalate," Pellegrini said.

Italy's pledge of 2,500 troops for the peacekeeping force is the largest yet. Most of the first 1,000 that began arriving Saturday will move to positions 12 miles inland from Tyre, according to the Italian Defense Ministry.

The first to arrive were around 150 Italian marines toting automatic weapons and wearing blue berets, brought in gray U.N. helicopters to a Tyre luxury hotel to secure two beaches where the remainder of an 880-member battalion off the coast in warships had been scheduled to land Saturday.

Only part of the force was able to make it to shore due to high waves Saturday. Some vehicles and equipment were diverted further south to Naqoura. The rest were expected today.

The Italian contingent will bring the total number of U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon to 3,250 -- including the 2,000 previous UNIFIL troops and 250 French troops who arrived last week.

France has promised to send another 1,750 soldiers, due to start arriving Sept. 10. The Spanish government agreed Friday to contribute up to 1,100 troops and dozens of other countries have pledged smaller contingents.

Some residents were optimistic about the international force.

"We're happy to see them," said Habib Hadid, a 55-year-old businessman who watched on the beach as Italian forces arrived in four small boats. "I hope this means the war is over."

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