Following an initial deployment of engineers, more French troops arrived in Lebanon Friday as part of the pledged 2,000-strong contingent which would form part of a UN force to maintain the current ceasefire.
France pledged 2,000 troops and offered to lead the UN force
Another 170 French troops arrived at the south Lebanese coastal town of Naqura on Friday to reinforce UN peacekeepers along the border with Israel, a day after France announced that it was committing 1,600 more troops to a UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon. A first French contingent of 49 engineers arrived on Saturday.
"I have decided to send two extra battalions into the field to expand our UNIFIL contingent. Two thousand French soldiers will thus be placed under the UN flag in Lebanon," French President Chirac said in a televised address on Thursday evening.
Each French battalion counts 800 soldiers. Four hundred French soldiers are already serving in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
US, Israel and Lebanon welcome deployment
The French decision was hailed by Israel and US President George W. Bush "I applaud the decision of France, as well as the significant pledges from Italy and our other important allies. I encourage other nations to make contributions as well," Bush said in a statement released by the White House.
Chirac answered the call
"The fact that the French have decided to send troops will bring in additional nations," Miri Eisen, a senior policy advisory to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told the BBC.
Lebanon's prime minister also praised France saying that its decision to contribute 2,000 soldiers to UN troops in Lebanon will bolster European participation and help consolidate stability in the country.
"Undoubtedly, the French decision will help boost European participation," Fuad Siniora said in a statement. "In turn, this will help speed up the formation of the international force, which along with the Lebanese army, will protect civilians and achieve security and stability," he said.
The deployment of the French troops "helps strengthen stability in Lebanon and allows the country to regain its territories through an Israeli withdrawal and the extension of state authority over all territories," he said.
French general to retain command -- for now
French troops arrived in Lebanon on Friday
The United Nations announced Thursday that French General Alain Pellegrini would keep command over the operation to monitor the tenuous ceasefire between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.
Pellegrini, currently in command of the United Nations interim force in Lebanon, will retain his post after the force undergoes a robust expansion under a UN resolution, a UN spokesman said Friday.
"General Alain Pellegrini leads UNIFIL and he will continue to do so" with the "very strong support" of Secretary General Kofi Annan, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
Both France and Italy have offered to command UNIFIL, which faces the daunting task of policing the ceasefire between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.
The appointment of a commander of a UN peacekeeping force is the responsibility of the secretary general. Kofi Annan, speaking from Brussels Friday where EU ministers are meeting to thrash out details of the bloc's deployment strategy, said that he expected to be able to announce the force's "leadership this afternoon."
UNIFIL to enforce ceasefire alongside Lebanese
Terms of the August 14 truce between Israel and Hezbollah fighters were laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 1701, under which Lebanon was "to secure its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry in Lebanon without its consent of arms."
Lebanese troops have since deployed along the Syrian border in the north and east of the country, military sources said.
A reinforced UNIFIL could help intercept arms shipments to Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group that captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12, sparking a massive riposte and 34 days of heavy fighting.
France and Italy leading EU efforts
UNIFIL will be boosted but will not make its target, it seems
France was criticized last week after it said that just 200 extra soldiers would join UNIFIL, which was set up 28 years ago as a toothless observer force but which the UN resolution aims to revamp into a more robust presence of 15,000 soldiers.
At the request of Britain, Israel, Lebanon and the United States, Italy stepped forward and offered to lead the force, pledging a reported 3,000 soldiers.
Spain was prepared to commit a battalion of between 700 and 800 troops to the UN force, military sources were quoted as saying by a news report late Thursday.
Greece, Finland, Latvia, Sweden and Poland have also indicated they could send soldiers, prompting European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso to say Thursday he was "confident that Europe will provide the necessary support to expand the UNIFIL."
EU will fail to meet 15,000-troop target
Many nations already have UN troops in Lebanon
EU leaders have spoken about contributing 4,000 troops to UNIFIL. However, even if EU leaders on Friday pledge several thousand soldiers, UNIFIL will still be far short of the 15,000 target.
Deployment plans were complicated however, with threats by Syria to close its border in the event of such a move by the UN.
Following talks in Helsinki with Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem, Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said: "They will close the frontier to all traffic" if UN troops were posted on the Lebanese side.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had already warned that such a deployment would represent a "hostile" position with regard to his country.