updated 9/9/2006 10:49:14 PM ET 2006-09-10T02:49:14

Italy’s prime minister said Saturday that Syrian President Bashar Assad has agreed to the deployment of European Union personnel along Lebanon’s border with Syria.

Syria’s official news agency denied news reports that the EU personnel under discussion would be border guards.

“The reports by some news agencies that Syria has accepted that European border guards monitor the Lebanese-Syrian borders are not true,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

The positioning of European Union guards could help allay Israel’s concerns about the smuggling of weapons from Syrian to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, which the U.N. Security Council has demanded be stopped under the nearly month-old cease-fire it brokered to end the war in southern Lebanon.

Syria and Iran are Hezbollah’s main backers, and Western and Israeli officials repeatedly have said the guerrillas receive arms from the two countries, often in land convoys from Syria.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi issued a statement Saturday saying he had spoken with Assad several times over the last few days and he has agreed “in principle” to an EU presence on the border between Lebanon and Syria.

“I reminded President Assad that the European Union has significant experience in training programs for frontier guards, and that the idea of an EU mission of assistance on the border between Syria and Lebanon would be an excellent signal of cooperation between Syria and Europe,” Prodi’s statement said. “President Assad gave me his accord in principle.”

Prodi’s statement also said “we believe that a significant quantity of arms pass through this border ... toward southern Lebanon.”

Semantic dispute
The Italian news agency ANSA quoted Prodi as saying Syria had agreed to European border guards in plainclothes and without weapons to prevent arms shipments to the Hezbollah. Prodi’s office earlier on Saturday confirmed the ANSA report was accurate.

Video: Hezbollah’s pull But after Syria issued its denial, Prodi’s spokesman Silvio Sircana clarified the prime minister’s earlier statements. He said Syria’s denial was accurate and quoted Prodi as saying Syria had agreed to “EU personnel.” He denied Prodi had referred to them as border guards.

“I confirm that Prodi and Assad did not discuss troops or guards, but only EU personnel without uniforms or arms that will be at the disposal of the Syrian forces,” Sircana told the Associated Press.

The Syrian news agency did not say whether the president had agreed to any other type of European presence on their border. It said that as part of continued consultations between Syria and Italy, Assad and Prodi spoke by telephone Saturday night during which “the talks were on technical assistance, including training, that is expected to be offered to Syrian border guards.”

Until now, Syria has vehemently rejected the deploying of armed U.N. peacekeepers on the Lebanese side of the border. Assad has said he would consider such a deployment a hostile move toward his country.

Pledge to halt arms smuggling
In a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Damascus earlier this month, Assad promised to increase Syrian patrols on the border and work with Lebanese troops to enforce the arms embargo.

Prodi said Saturday that Assad told him Syria would send 500 border guards, but did not say when. The Lebanese military said Saturday there had been no changes on the Syrian side of the border.

The U.N. resolution that halted 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah on Aug. 14 laid out a delicate and complicated process for keeping the peace — but so far its provisions are slowly coming together.

Israel lifted its air and sea blockades of Lebanon this week, and Israeli troops are pulling out of the south as the Lebanese army moves in.

Some 3,250 U.N. peacekeepers have fanned out across the south as well, part of a force planned to reach 15,000. A naval force is patrolling off shore, and international officials will operate at Lebanon’s seaports and airport to help Lebanese officials watch for arms smuggling.

Disarmament poses challenge
The next test will be how the U.N. peacekeepers deal with Hezbollah as they enforce a buffer zone in southern Lebanon where the guerrillas’ weapons are banned.

Another major issue remains sensitive and untouched: Hezbollah’s disarmament.

The U.N. force, known as UNIFIL, does not plan to seek out hidden Hezbollah arsenals, only to deal with any weapons its troops might encounter.

“We’re mandated to make sure there are no forces outside the Lebanese army and UNIFIL in south Lebanon. But I’m not a fortuneteller and we haven’t been in such situations yet,” UNIFIL spokesman Alexander Ivanko said.

He repeated Annan’s position that “disarming Hezbollah is something for the Lebanese army.”

Some 200 French soldiers landed in Beirut on Saturday to join the U.N. force, the largest French deployment so far out of 2,000 troops it has promised. The amphibious ship La Foudre delivered some 100 military vehicles and weaponry as well.

Also Saturday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said his government would send hundreds of army engineers under the U.N. umbrella to Lebanon to help clear land mines.

The United Nations said, however, that Pakistan’s participation was not a done deal, alluding to Israel’s objection to UNIFIL troops coming from countries that have no diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, criticized the Lebanese government’s decision to allow foreign ships to monitor the coast, saying that put the country under foreign sway.

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