France Mulls Deploying Navy to Secure Southern Lebanon

France's military on Wednesday loaded hefty tanks onto ships set to leave for Lebanon while President Jacques Chirac gave tentative support to a U.N. request that French navy vessels patrol the Mediterranean to thwart any secret weapons shipments to Hezbollah.

Chirac expressed a willingness to respond to a request by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that France help monitor sea lanes off Lebanon's coast, once the details are worked out, Chirac's office said Tuesday after the two men spoke by telephone.

France already has two frigates, the Cassard and the Montcalm, and the transport ship, the Siroco, in the eastern Mediterranean. They arrived to support humanitarian and evacuation roles during the more than month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants.

Annan is working to strike a deal in which French, Italian, Greek and later German ships would agree to patrol Lebanon's coast. Israel said it would lift its sea blockade of Lebanon on Thursday night.

On Wednesday, France's military was loading 13 Leclerc tanks onto ships bound for Lebanon to join the UNIFIL peacekeeping force in the country, where a fragile cease-fire appeared to be holding.

The deployment was in response to a new U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing an expansion of UNIFIL to up to 15,000 troops -- from 2,000.

France is among several nations contributing and will lead the force for the next six months.