BRUSSELS, Belgium – Some 150 French army engineers landed Friday at Naqoura in southern Lebanon, and expectations rose that thousands more would follow quickly after European nations answered the U.N. appeal for a major contribution to an expanded international force.
The French joined 250 of their countrymen already among 2,200 peacekeepers in the country, as Italy's leader reportedly said his nation's troops could leave for Lebanon as early as Tuesday.
The new arrivals came as the European Union swept away a major hurdle to keeping the peace between Israel and Hezbollah by agreeing Friday to provide the "backbone" of a French-led peacekeeping force of 15,000 soldiers in Lebanon.
The commitment of up to 6,900 European soldiers relieved concerns that the peacekeeping force might be stillborn because of reluctance by many countries to send troops into the Middle East cauldron without clear instructions or authorization to use their weapons.
The international force is meant to give teeth to the Lebanese army, which has begun moving 15,000 soldiers of its own into the south to assert the central government's authority in the region along the Israeli border for the first time in decades.
In Beirut, an official close to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said his government welcomed the EU decision and that it would help restore stability. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make statements to the media.
But 12 days after the cease-fire in fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, questions remained about how to enforce a vague truce agreement and prevent the area from exploding again.
Israel said it would lift its air and sea embargo of Lebanon once the U.N. force takes control, but EU officials said that could take up to three months. The blockade is meant to stop arms getting to Hezbollah, but it also is hindering deliveries of food, fuel and other goods.
The EU and U.N. agree the peacekeeping mission must have a strong Muslim component to give it credibility. But Israel objects to nations that do not recognize the Jewish state, saying such troops would make it impossible for Jerusalem to share intelligence with the U.N. force.
Israel's objection would include Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, which have volunteered troops. Turkey, meanwhile, which does have diplomatic relations with Israel and would be acceptable to all parties, has not decided whether to join the force.
It was unclear how the United Nations would meet Israel's demand to prevent the Islamic militants of Hezbollah from rearming, including controlling the Lebanon-Syrian border.
And dismantling Hezbollah's arsenal of rockets and other weapons already in southern Lebanon was an open sore.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said France wanted to create an arms-free "exclusion zone" in southern Lebanon to separate Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas.
"Our objective is clear, to disarm Hezbollah," Douste-Blazy said, but he added that military force was not the answer. "The only solution is to have a political solution."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said it was not the United Nations' task to strip the guerrillas of their weapons.
"The troops are not going there to disarm Hezbollah. Let's be clear about that," he said after meeting with EU ministers. He said disarmament is an issue for Lebanon's government, and "cannot be done by force."
Annan left the meeting with a commitment for more than half the 15,000 soldiers envisioned in the Security Council resolution that halted the war after 34 days. The promised 6,900 European soldiers did not include naval units, air support or peacekeepers already on the ground.
The bulk of the new troops came from Italy and France. Other countries committed smaller units. Belgium volunteered 400 soldiers, including critical land-mine removal units. Germany and Denmark offered naval forces, and the Finnish foreign minister spoke of sending 250 soldiers, if his parliament approved.
The United States has ruled out providing troops, but is expected to provide logistics support. As a rule, Washington does not participate in peacekeeping missions unless it is commanding the force.
France, which now commands the small UNIFIL force that has been in southern Lebanon since 1978, will lead the expanded force until February, when it will hand over command to Italy.
"Europe is providing the backbone of the force," Annan said. "We can now begin to put together a credible force."
He said the peacekeeping force will be "strong, credible and robust."
Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said the entire U.N. force should be in place within two to three months.
Annan said he hoped the expanded force would be able to start deploying in "days, not weeks." He had earlier set a target date of Sept. 2.
Israel said it would lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon as soon as the international force got into place — but insisted that includes having peacekeepers along the Syrian border to block arms shipments to Hezbollah from its two main supporters, Iran and Syria.
"The minute those forces are there, we can lift it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem.
Such a move would aggravate tensions with Syria, whose leaders have called the deployment of international troops along the border a "hostile" act.
But Annan said U.N. troops would deploy on the Syrian border only at Lebanon's request, which Beirut hasn't done. "The resolution does not require the deployment of U.N. troops to the border," he said at a news conference after a three-hour meeting with the 25 EU ministers.
The issue is unlikely to prevent the Israeli government, which is under domestic pressure to pull out of Lebanon quickly, from withdrawing its soldiers.
However, Israel could use airstrikes on border crossings, roads and bridges to prevent arms smuggling if Lebanese troops and the U.N. force did not stop shipments themselves. Israel's air force and navy could also maintain the blockade to apply further pressure on Lebanon.
Annan told the EU ministers that the cease-fire was holding with few infractions, but he urged them to move swiftly to get their soldiers to the volatile region.