Defence chief reviews French troops in Lebanon

18th September 2006, Comments 0 comments

BEIRUT, Sept 17, 2006 (AFP) - French Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie arrived in Lebanon Sunday to review the movement of French troops deploying to a UN peacekeeping force in the south.

BEIRUT, Sept 17, 2006 (AFP) - French Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie arrived in Lebanon Sunday to review the movement of French troops deploying to a UN peacekeeping force in the south.

She told reporters on arrival at Beirut airport that the aim of her visit was "to assure the Lebanese authorities of France's support" for Lebanon and its post-war reconstruction.

The mission would also "strengthen cooperation" between the Lebanese and French armed forces, she said.

Her visit comes as the Beirut government struggles to find a way to disarm the Shiite movement Hezbollah, as called for in the UN Security Council resolution that brought an end on August 14 to the devastating 34-day war with Israel.

That question, and the more mundane logistical matter of finding land on which the peacekeepers can set up bases, are both complicating the work of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

Southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah's power has been virtually uncontested for years, "must become a region entirely controlled by the Lebanese army and by the reinforced UNIFIL," Alliot-Marie said in an interview with Lebanese daily L'Orient Le Jour.

Hezbollah said Saturday it would have no problem with UN peacekeepers as long as they stick to defending Lebanon against Israel, two days after the French general leading the troops hinted they would disarm the Shiite group if the Lebanese army does not.

UNIFIL "is here to protect the Lebanese and Lebanon's sovereignty, and we want its mandate limited to that," in which case there "will be no problems," Nabil Qaouk, the group's chief in the south, told AFP.

But General Alain Pellegrini said UNIFIL would act on its own if necessary.

"If the (Lebanese army) fails to act, we must assume our responsibilities as a UN force," he said. "Someone will have to intervene, with all the consequences that this might have for the Lebanese authorities."

Resolution 1701 calls for establishing "an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL" between the Israeli border and the Litani River, a strategic waterway that runs between five and 30 kilometres (three and 19 miles) north of the border.

It stipulates that UNIFIL should "assist the Lebanese armed forces" in achieving that.

In part, this is an allusion to Hezbollah, which sparked the war by capturing two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 cross-border raid. Israel launched the war with two objectives — to free the soldiers and to eliminate Hezbollah's ability to attack it from southern Lebanon.

In Baraasheet, a Hezbollah stronghold less than 10 kilometres from the Israeli border, the mayor issued a blunt warning to the French not to attempt to disarm the group.

"The purpose of this war was to seize Hezbollah's arms," Mohammed Ismail said. "Israel did not succeed in doing it, and if the French battalion wants to carry out that mission in place of Israel, I am sure they will not succeed.

"We will inflict even greater losses on them than we did on the Israelis," he warned.

It is just outside Baraasheet, on a plateau overlooking the former Hezbollah bastion of Bint Jbeil, that 600 men of a 900-strong battalion will be based. The first elements of that unit began moving south from the capital Sunday.

Lieutenant Colonel Jerome Salle said the troops would move first to Deir Kifa, east of the port of Tyre, before eventually relieving a Ghanaian contingent in the Bint Jbeil area.

The battalion, which will be supported by around a dozen Leclerc tanks, will have two roles — to control the area and to act as a rapid reaction force.

France's total UNIFIL contingent of around 2,000 men will be part of an overall force of up to 15,000, who are deploying in south Lebanon along with an equal number of Lebanese troops to police the ceasefire.

Separately, a ship carrying 76 men from the Spanish Legion, accompanied by vehicles and materiel, docked in Beirut Sunday. They are due to join some 500 Spanish marines already based in the south.

Spain has committed a total of 1,100 troops to the beefed-up UNIFIL force which, according to an AFP count, now totals nearly 4,600 people. Israel has said it will complete its withdrawal once UNIFIL's troop strength reaches 5,000.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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