War drills occupy French sailors in Lebanon

23rd February 2007, Comments 0 comments

ABOARD THE SURCOUF, Off the Lebanese coast, Feb 23, 2007 (AFP) - The rattle of machinegun fire echoes across the water as French peacekeeping sailors engage in shooting drills to keep sharp six months after a UN-brokered truce ended the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

ABOARD THE SURCOUF, Off the Lebanese coast, Feb 23, 2007 (AFP) - The rattle of machinegun fire echoes across the water as French peacekeeping sailors engage in shooting drills to keep sharp six months after a UN-brokered truce ended the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Wearing khaki bullet-resistant vests, they shoot at red and yellow balloons designed to represent a moving dinghy navigated by a suicide bomber who is approaching to attack their warship.

The self-defence exercise is part of a rigorous training programme that includes nighttime helicopter navigation, sea-based refuelling and on-board fire drills with a disciplined cadence that fills their long days.

The 150 sailors on board the frigate, called the Surcouf, who arrived at the end of November as part of a bolstered UN peacekeeping mission in the area "are always practising their skills so as not to get rusty," said Captain Laurent Hava.

"They have to be ready to face anything."

In July the warship's personnel were commissioned as part of an operation to evacuate more than 13,000 people when Israel that month launched its offensive in Lebanon following the capture of two of its soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas.

In addition, the team has to be able to respond to accidents, and so the clang of fire alarms rings regularly through the passageways of the 125-metre (400 foot) ship.

Clad in fireproof gear, their faces hidden behind oxygen masks, the ship's firefighters practise evacuating an injured person on a stretcher through narrow corridors charged with smoke.

"Fire is our greatest fear," said Lieutenant Pascale Glaser, the only woman on board. "It would destroy the ship much faster than a water leak."

Refuelling can be another matter of life and death at sea. When the ship cannot dock for reloading with supplies and petrol, it has to do so in open water without bumping -- or "kissing" as the sailors say -- the supply ship.

The ship is also tasked with identifying boats that approach Lebanese waters, a system aimed at preventing arms smuggling to Hezbollah that Hava describes as "watertight."

Around 30 ships are identified every day. Since its arrival the Surcouf has stopped a cigarette-smuggling ship, but none with weapons.

"When a ship seems suspicious because it refuses to answer our questions, or it has a dubious flag or an illogical route, we tell the Lebanese navy which then checks it out," says Hava.

"The measures are very dissuasive, no one tries to cross," he says.

Amid the drills, Israeli warplanes continue to overfly UN peacekeeping ships, a practice French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie criticised last October as "dangerous".

"There are still fairly occasional Israeli overflights," says Hava, declining to say how often his ship is "buzzed".

But when the work is done, at least the sailors and marines aboard can unwind with a glass of wine or beer.

"As long as it doesn't affect the boat's functioning, it can limit binge drinking when we dock," says Hava.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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