BEIRUT, Lebanon – A French ship docked at Beirut port Saturday carrying 200 troops and some 100 military vehicles bound for south Lebanon to join the U.N. peacekeeping force that is monitoring the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
Their arrival marked the first major French deployment of soldiers to Lebanon since French President Jacques Chirac announced last month that France would increase its contribution to the U.N. force, known as UNIFIL, to 2,000 troops.
The amphibious ship La Foudre arrived around 8:30 a.m. and soldiers began filing out shortly afterward, witnesses and an AP photographer said. The ship, which sailed from the Mediterranean port of Toulon on Sept. 4, is also carrying some 100 armored personnel carriers, trucks, weaponry and equipment for the troops.
France is currently leading UNIFIL's mission in Lebanon. Its contribution is to include Leclerc tanks, surface-to-surface artillery, short-range anti-aircraft missiles and radar. French officials said the troops that arrived Saturday would stay in Beirut pending the arrival of more soldiers next week, after which they would begin their deployment in southern Lebanon.
The expanded force is expected to help the Lebanese army step up government authority along the Lebanese-Israeli border, where monthlong fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah militia killed hundreds of people. The fighting ended with a U.N. brokered cease-fire on Aug. 14.
But in a sign of the perilous situation in the south, a 70-year-old Lebanese man, Hussein Ali Ahmed Ali, was critically wounded Saturday when a cluster bomb left over from Israel's offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas exploded outside his home in the southern village of Yuhmor, security officials said. Two people were wounded in a similar explosion Friday night.
The arrival of the French troops comes a day after Israel lifted its sea blockade of Lebanon, ending the country's two months of isolation as the task of preventing the entry of Hezbollah weapons fell to international warships patrolling offshore.
A combined task force of French, Italian and Greek warships began patrolling Lebanon's Mediterranean coast as of noon Friday, a mission it will carry out for about two months until a longer-term force of German vessels moves in.
The end of the sea blockade on Lebanon lifts a barrier that has stifled Lebanon and cost the country tens of millions of dollars as it tries to rebuild from the devastating 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Israel lifted the air blockade on Lebanon Thursday and by Saturday, most Arab airlines and several European airlines had resumed flights to the country. Flights were packed with Lebanese visiting relatives or returning home after they had fled the war. Very few Arab tourists returned to spend the last few days of summer in Lebanon.
An Israeli army spokesperson said Saturday that five Lebanese who were detained during the night have been released after being questioned.
Lebanese security officials had said Friday that six people had been seized -- five, including a policeman, in the border village of Aita al-Chaab and another villager at Marwaheen in the same region. But the Israeli army said only five had been detained. The spokesperson said the men were unarmed but were in an area controlled by the Israeli army.
With the lifting of the blockade, the focus now shifts to the complicated process of withdrawing Israeli troops from southern Lebanon and replacing them with 15,000 Lebanese soldiers and a similar number of U.N. peacekeepers who are to maintain a border buffer zone free of Hezbollah weapons.
Israel has been gradually pulling out its soldiers -- whose number peaked at 30,000 at the war's end -- as international replacements move into place. On Friday, it said it plans to pull the last of its troops out of Lebanon within two weeks.
The Israeli army would not say exactly how many of its soldiers remain, citing security reasons, but a spokeswoman said the military held only about 25 percent of the ground in southern Lebanon that it did previously.
When the fighting ended, Israeli soldiers were present in a strip along the length of the Lebanon-Israel border and in a corridor of territory leading nearly 18 miles north to the Litani River.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been pressing Israel to pull out all its soldiers once 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers are on the ground by mid-September. About 3,450 U.N. soldiers are already in Lebanon.