DOHA,(Reuters) – Qatar on Monday became the first Arab country to commit troops to the expanded U.N. force set up to keep the peace between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon.
The Gulf state said it would contribute 200-300 troops to the U.N. force and planned to send a civilian airliner to Beirut despite a nearly eight-week-old Israeli air and sea blockade.
The planned deployment was announced by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad al-Thani during a visit to Doha by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Speaking to reporters, Annan said the United Nations hoped the expanded U.N. force would be a “manifestation of international solidarity” with Lebanon. He also urged Israel to lift its siege of the country, saying it was unsustainable.
“We are using the U.N. influence to lift the embargo especially as Lebanon is trying to rebuild… It has to be allowed to rebuild. I urge Israel to cooperate,” he said.
Qatar, a political maverick in the conservative Gulf Arab region, maintains low-level ties with Israel. It is also a key U.S. ally and hosts a major U.S. military base.
“Qatar has relations with Israel and as a result Israel has no objection to its participation in the force,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
Italian troops will make up the largest single contingent of the force known as UNIFIL II, to deploy in the south after a truce halted Israel’s 34-day war with Hizbollah on Aug. 14.
The Finnish government has approved a plan to send up to 250 soldiers as the contribution to the U.N. operation in Lebanon, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen told a news conference on Monday.
The main body of troops would arrive by the start of November and are expected to remain until end-2007. Finland’s troops will mainly be engineers, according to the plan.
Israel has kept an air and sea embargo on Lebanon since July 13. It has not lifted it after the truce, saying it was aimed at preventing Hizbollah rearming.
Qatar Airways announced on Sunday it would resume its direct service to Beirut, despite Israel’s demand that all such flights pass through Amman, Jordan for security reasons. The first Qatar Airways plane is due to land in Beirut at 1230 GMT.
Israel said it would allow Qatar Airways to resume direct flights to Beirut. “We have said that we will not act against this,” an Israeli government official said.
Lebanese Transport Minister Mohammed Safadi said on Sunday the government favoured opening Beirut airport to any planes willing to ignore Israeli restrictions.
Annan has in the past week visited Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Qatar, Syria and Iran. He said he won the support of the presidents of Syria and Iran, Hizbollah’s main backers, for the implementation of the U.N. resolution on Lebanon that halted the war which killed nearly 1,200 Lebanese and 157 Israelis.
Italy has pledged 3,000 troops to a U.N. plan to increase the existing 2,000 peacekeepers in Lebanon to 15,000 to help enforce the truce. The Lebanese army is also deploying 15,000 troops in the volatile area.
Around 900 Italian troops, backed by about 150 vehicles, landed in south Lebanon at the weekend. The troops are expected to deploy in areas east and south of the port city of Tyre.