U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited U.N. peacekeepers in south
Lebanon on Tuesday, a day after Italy and Turkey moved to join the
international force there.
Annan and his entourage left Beirut Tuesday morning in two white United Nations helicopters, and landed in Naqoura, a town on the Mediterranean coast about 4 kilometers north of the Israeli border, and home to headquarters of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.
The U.N. chief was in Lebanon on the first leg of an 11-day Mideast tour that would take him to Israel, as well as to Syria and Iran — Hizbullah's main benefactors.
Annan was briefed Tuesday by French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, the UNIFIL commander, and other top officials, and then reviewed an honor guard of U.N. troops in blue berets standing at attention on the green lawn inside the U.N.'s white-walled compound. A military band played alongside them.
Annan laid a wreath at a monument for peacekeepers killed in Lebanon since UNIFIL deployed there in 1978. Muslim and Christian clergymen said prayers, and the U.N. chief stood in silence in front of a display of portraits of those killed, including four UNIFIL members killed in an Israeli airstrike on their base in Khiam on July 25.
The U.N. chief would visit other UNIFIL posts throughout the south by helicopter later Tuesday, possibly landing at Khiam, Ivanko said.
Annan, wearing a business suit, shook hands with members of the 2,000-member force, which is being expanded to 15,000 under the U.N. resolution that halted fighting between Israel and Hizbullah on Aug. 14. Flags of countries contributing troops to UNIFIL, including Annan's native Ghana, fluttered in the breeze as the band played their national anthems.
From Lebanon, the U.N. secretary general is expected to travel to Israel to discuss the Jewish state's crippling blockade of Lebanon and a potential prisoner swap.
On Monday, Annan pressed Hizbullah to release two Israeli soldiers, whose July 12 capture started the 34-day Israel-Hizbullah war, and called on Israel to lift its sea and air blockade.
After talks with Lebanese leaders in Beirut, the U.N. chief faulted both Israel and Hizbullah for not living up to key sections of the cease-fire resolution, and warned that fighting could resume if the parties did not abide by the full resolution.
"Without the full implementation of resolution 1701, I fear the risk is great for renewal of hostilities," he said.
He also toured a bombed out neighborhood in the Hizbullah stronghold of south Beirut, where hundreds of residents booed him as he toured the ruins.
Meanwhile, The French military said a 900-man French battalion equipped with 13 tanks and heavy artillery will arrive in south Lebanon by mid-September.
The battalion — part of France's 2,000-strong overall contribution to the U.N. force — will include 13 Leclerc heavy tanks, 155-millimetre canons, and two mechanized infantry units, the armed forces chief of staff said.
Also Tuesday, an Italian task force gathered off the coast of southern Italy to carry troops and aircraft to south Lebanon. One-thousand Marines and engineer corps specialists were leaving as the first of a 2,500-strong contingent being deployed by Italy.
Three landing platform dock ships also were departing the port of Brindisi, and a small frigate already in Cyprus was scheduled to join the Italian mission, the Defense Ministry said.
Italy on Monday approved sending 2,500 troops, the largest national contingent so far. The plan now goes to parliament for approval, but the ships were to set sail ahead of the vote and reach the coast of Lebanon on Friday.
The peacekeeping force was to grow to 15,000, according to the Aug. 11 U.N. cease-fire resolution that halted fighting between Israel and Hizbullah three days later.
On Monday, Turkey's cabinet decided in favor of sending peacekeepers and its parliament was to convene to debate the deployment later this week or early next week, said Turkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek.
"In principle, we've decided to join the U.N. peacekeeping mission," Cicek said. "The issue was debated in detail, considering our country's national interests."
Cicek said the size and composition of the force would be determined by the military. Opposition to sending peacekeepers has been mounting in Turkey.