BEIRUT, (Reuters) – More than 200 French military engineers landed at Beirut porton Saturday, the advance group of a battalion which will reinforce U.N. peacekeepers in south Lebanon and open the way for Israel to pull out all its troops.
“They are the forward group of a French battalion which is due to arrive next week,” said Alexander Ivanko, spokesman for the UNIFIL peacekeepers.
Israel invaded south Lebanon after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two of its soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12. It has been gradually withdrawing forces since an Aug. 14 ceasefire ended 34 days of fighting.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said Israel should complete its withdrawal from south Lebanon once 5,000 U.N. troops were on the ground.
The French force which arrived on Saturday, between 200 and 300 logisticians and engineers, brought the total U.N. force to around 3,350, Ivanko said.
The U.N. force could reach 5,000 once the rest of the 700-strong French battalion arrive next week, and an expected Spanish contingent of around 900 troops reach Lebanon, he added.
But security sources in Lebanon say logistical problems, including painstaking demining operations in south Lebanon, could delay the actual deployment of the peacekeepers.
On Friday Israel lifted its eight-week sea blockade of Lebanon, handing control of the Lebanese coastline to an international naval task force.
The end of the maritime embargo, a day after Israel lifted its air blockade, had been a key Lebanese demand to help speed reconstruction of bridges, homes, roads and factories devastated during the war between Israel and Hezbollah.