TYRE, Lebanon – Italian soldiers began pouring into Lebanon on Saturday, part of the first large contingent of international troops dispatched to boost the U.N. force keeping the peace between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
Around 150 Italian marines wearing blue berets arrived aboard a wave of gray U.N. helicopters in the Mediterranean port city of Tyre to secure two beaches where the remainder of an 880-strong battalion of soldiers will land over the weekend. High waves delayed the deployment, though, and some vehicles and equipment were diverted further south to Naqoura. Another 200 Italian troops are expected Sunday in the capital, Beirut.
The commander of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL, French Gen. Alain Pellegrini, said the expanded peacekeeping mission marked a break from the past.
"We have to forget the previous UNIFIL. The previous UNIFIL is dead and the new one is very different," Pellegrini told reporters. "It is strengthened with stronger rules of engagement. We will have more people, more equipment. We have the possibility to use force to implement our mission."
International troops have been slow to arrive in Lebanon since an Aug. 14 cease-fire brought an end to 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, in part because it took time to hammer out details over the troops' mandate.
Besides the Italian contingent, just 250 extra French soldiers have made it to the country, though France has said it will send a total of 2,000 troops. The Italians' arrival will bring the number of U.N. forces to around 3,250.
Also Saturday, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda announced his country will send up to 1,000 soldiers to southern Lebanon by the month's end, after Israel dropped objections to its participation in the force. Israel had said it did not want Indonesia to take part because the predominantly Muslim nation did not have relations with the Jewish state.
The U.N. force is to expanded over the next few months to 15,000 and deployed with an equal number of Lebanese soldiers across south Lebanon as Israeli forces withdraw from positions they invaded last month, leaving behind a buffer zone theoretically free of Hezbollah fighters and arms between the Litani River and the U.N.-drawn border, or Blue Line, about 20 miles to the south.
Hezbollah has vowed not to lay down its weapons and its fighters have melted away into the civilian population. The Lebanese army has made no moves to disarm them.
In the meantime, Israel has been destroying Hezbollah arms caches in territories it still occupies in south "very often," Pellegrini said. On Friday, the Israeli military said its forces had demolished an unspecified number of Hezbollah bunkers that contained rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortar shells and communications equipment near the Lebanese border village of Aita al-Shaab.
Pellegrini said the cease-fire is holding, "but it's fragile, any incident can escalate."
He said there had been no recent exchanges of fire or shootings, but Israeli jets conducting reconnaissance missions have repeatedly violated Lebanese air space. He also said Israeli forces had crossed the so-called Blue Line that separates Lebanon from its southern neighbor, but gave no details.
The presence of more U.N. troops may help assuage fears of a renewal of hostilities. But the peacekeepers will stay out of the most sensitive issues, both demanded by Israel: disarming Hezbollah and keeping the guerrillas from receiving fresh arms, especially via Lebanon's border with Syria. Syria strongly opposes any international forces along its border.
Pellegrini said disarming Hezbollah "is a national issue and this has to be solved by the Lebanese authorities. My mission is to keep a well defined area which is between the Litani River and the Blue Line clear of any weapons."
Europe is providing the backbone of the U.N. force and has promised 6,900 soldiers. Italy's contribution of 2,500 troops is the largest, second to France's 2,000, the first battalion of which is due in Lebanon Sept. 10.
Italy's Defense Ministry said its troops will include marines, engineers, military police and other specialists, as well as 158 vehicles including trucks and amphibious tracked vehicles.
The force will move 12 miles inland to an area temporarily assigned to it by the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL, the ministry said. Italian commanders have said the troops are likely to be deployed in and around Tyre.
France will initially lead the force, but Italy will take command of UNIFIL next year.
France is deploying heavy armor that French defense officials say will include Leclerc tanks, surface-to-surface artillery, short-range anti-aircraft missiles and radar -- unusually heavy weapons for a peacekeeping force.
The war began when Hezbollah guerrillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12 that provoked a fierce response from Israel, which invaded Lebanon and sent warplanes to bombard roads, bridges and homes across the country in daily airstrikes.
UNIFIL was created in 1978 to monitor the withdrawal of Israeli troops who invaded Lebanon the same year. Its troops have been helpless to stop repeated bouts of violence in south Lebanon, acting mainly as impotent observers.