TYRE, Lebanon, (Reuters) – About 550 Spanish troops began arriving in Lebanon on Friday to join an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force to patrol the south alongside the Lebanese army after Israel’s war with Hezbollah guerrillas.
Their arrival over the next few days will bring the number of U.N. troops in Lebanon close to the target of 5,000 which the United Nations says should prompt Israel to pull its troops out of the tiny border pockets they still occupy.
“Our target is 5,000 in the next few days,” said Milos Strugar, a spokesman for the UNIFIL peacekeeping force.
Spanish troops came ashore from two landing craft onto a beach in Tyre as Lebanese families basked and swam nearby.
Spain’s ambassador to Lebanon, Miguel Benzo, told Reuters the U.N. force had already reached a size sufficient for Israel to pull out. “It is quite big enough in order to demand that the Israelis withdraw and they have shown that will,” he said. Israel said it would complete its pullout as soon as U.N. and Lebanese troops were ready to replace its forces.
“We will be ready to pull out when they are ready,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said, without saying if this would happen as soon as 5,000 U.N. troops were on the ground.
The expanded force, known as UNIFIL II, could eventually reach 15,000 troops to join a similar number of Lebanese army troops in the south under the Security Council resolution that halted 34 days of fighting on Aug. 14.
Regev said Israel was concerned by what he called continuing violations of the U.N. resolution by the Lebanese side, saying the measure’s call for the unconditional release of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah had gone unfulfilled.
Hezbollah insists the pair will only be freed in exchange for Lebanese prisoners held in Israel.
Regev said the Shi’ite Muslim guerrillas remained in the south despite the U.N. demand for the removal of any armed Hezbollah presence south of the Litani River, which lies about 20 km (13 miles) north of Lebanon’s border with Israel.
Hezbollah has said its fighters remain in their native villages in the area, without showing their weapons.
Regev also said the Syrian border was a major gap in the enforcement of an international arms embargo stipulated by the resolution to prevent Hezbollah rearming “Unfortunately, the Syria-Lebanon border remains porous and open,” he said. “We want to see the Lebanese army, augmented by international forces, enforcing the embargo on that frontier.”
Lebanon has already deployed 8,000 troops on the Syrian border, but has not asked UNIFIL to send any forces there.
Lebanon says Israel has breached the U.N. resolution with daily violations of its airspace, as well as with last month’s helicopter-borne raid near the eastern city of Baalbek.
UNIFIL said 480 troops from the Spanish Marine Expeditionary Force would reach Tyre over the next two days, while an advance party of 80 from the Spanish Legion Brigade would fly to Beirut.
A Spanish officer said Spain’s contingent would not reach its full strength of 1,100 until the end of October.
Congestion on the ground has already forced UNIFIL to ask Indonesia to delay sending its contingent until next month.
Israel initially objected to troops from nations that do not recognise it, but later relaxed that stance. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state, has no ties with Israel.