BEIRUT, Lebanon – A French ship docked in Beirut Saturday carrying 200 troops and some 100 military vehicles bound for the U.N. peacekeeping force 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 to 2,000 troops.
The amphibious ship La Foudre arrived around 8:30 a.m. and soldiers began filing out shortly afterward. They will stay in Beirut until the arrival of more soldiers next week, when they will begin deploying to southern Lebanon, French officials said.
The ship, which sailed from the Mediterranean port of Toulon on Sept. 4, also carried some 100 armored personnel carriers, trucks, weaponry and equipment for the troops. France, which is leading the peacekeeping mission, is contributing Leclerc tanks, surface-to-surface artillery, short-range anti-aircraft missiles and radar.
The expanded force is expected to help the Lebanese army assert 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 Aug. 14.
In a sign of the perilous situation in the south, a 70-year-old Lebanese man was critically wounded Saturday when a cluster bomb left over from Israel's offensive 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 sea blockade stifled Lebanon and cost the country tens of millions of dollars as it tried to rebuild from the devastating 34-day war.
Israel lifted an air blockade Thursday, and most Arab airlines and several European airlines had resumed flights to Lebanon by Saturday. Flights were packed with Lebanese visiting relatives or returning home after fleeing the war. Very few Arab tourists returned to spend the last few days of summer in Lebanon, airport officials said.
The Israeli army detained five men Lebanese overnight but they were released after being questioned, the Israeli army said. The men were unarmed but were in an area controlled by the Israeli troops, the army said.
Lebanese security officials had said Friday that six people were seized, including a policeman, in two villages near the border. But the Israeli army said only five were detained.
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 numbers peaked at 30,000 at the war's end — as international replacements move into place. On Friday, it said it planned 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 than it did previously in southern Lebanon.
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.