BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) – Syrian President Bashar Assad has agreed “in principle” to a European presence on its border to halt arms shipments to Hezbollah, while Pakistan said Saturday that it would send hundreds of army engineers to Lebanon to help clear land mines.
Meanwhile, 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.
Assad said in a television interview last month that he considered the possible deployment of international troops along his country’s border with Lebanon a “hostile” move aimed at damaging relations between the two neighbors.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi Italian Prime Minister said in a statement issued Saturday in Rome that he had spoken with Assad several times over the last few days.
“I reminded President Assad that the European Union has significant experience in training programs for frontier guards, and that the idea of an EU mission of assistance on the border between Syria and Lebanon would be an excellent signal of cooperation between Syria and Europe,” he said. “President Assad gave me his accord in principle.”
Damascus had no immediate comment on Prodi’s announcement. Syria’s official news agency reported late Friday that Assad talked by phone with Prodi to discuss the “latest developments in the region and in Lebanon,” but the report did not mention deployment of peacekeepers.
Assad’s approval would be a major reversal in Syria’s position. The Syrian president said in the television interview last month that it was unprecedented for foreign forces to police a border between two countries that have not been at war.
However, in a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Damascus earlier this month, Assad promised to increase border patrols and work with Lebanese troops to thwart the flow of arms to its ally, Hezbollah. Prodi said Saturday that Assad told him Syria would send 500 border guards, but did not specify when.
Also Saturday, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters that his government would send hundreds of army engineers to Lebanon to help clear land mines.
South Lebanon is still riddled with unexploded ordnance after an Aug. 14 cease-fire ended 34 days of fighting between Israel and the Islamic militant group.
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 Yuhmor, security officials said. Two people were wounded in a similar explosion Friday night.
The arrival of the French troops marked the first major French deployment of soldiers to Lebanon since 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.
Israel lifted its sea blockade of Lebanon on Friday, shifting the focus 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.
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.
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.
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.