French soldiers landed in Lebanon on Saturday, the first reinforcements for an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force tasked with keeping the truce in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict.
About 50 French troops — military engineers — were to prepare for the arrival of 200 more soldiers expected next week, said Cmdr. Bertrand Bonneau, a spokesman for the French contingent.
“Today this is the first step,” he said. “France is the first country to deploy additional troops in the region.”
Also on Saturday, a French engineering detachment geared up a dock landing ship in the Mediterranean port city of Toulon to carry 150 additional troops and some 100 vehicles to join the U.N. force.
The amphibious assault ship — which is able to transport and launch amphibious craft and vehicles with their crews and embarked personnel — was expected to arrive in Beirut or Naqoura on Thursday, said Col. Christophe Issac, head of the 13th engineering corps.
A U.N. cease-fire resolution authorized up to 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help 15,000 Lebanese troops extend their authority into south Lebanon, which has been controlled by Hezbollah, as Israel withdraws its soldiers.
Goal is buffer zone
The aim is to create a buffer zone free of Hezbollah fighters between the Litani River and the U.N.-drawn border, about 20 miles to the south. The U.N. wants 3,500 troops on the ground by Aug. 28.
On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to U.N. member states to provide peacekeepers, assuring them the U.N. force would not be tasked with fighting Israel, Lebanon, or Hezbollah militants.
A key concern of many countries is whether the U.N. force will be called on to disarm Hezbollah fighters, as called for in a September 2004 U.N. resolution.
Italy announced Friday it would contribute troops, though it gave no numbers, and Finland pledged 250 troops. But U.N. Deputy-Secretary Mark Malloch Brown stressed that more European nations are needed to balance the commitments from Muslim countries so that both Israel and Lebanon will view the troops as legitimate.
France already has 200 troops among the 2,000-member U.N. force that has been in south Lebanon since 1978.