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Lebanese Soldiers Reach Border, Nations Pledge Troops


Lebanese soldiers reached the country's southern border Friday, taking up positions in villages battered during the war between Israel and Hezbollah. This comes as the United Nations works to secure international pledges of more troops to enforce the ceasefire, while aid groups focus on reconstruction efforts.

Lebanese soldiers were given a hero's welcome in the village of Shebaa Friday, as their military convoy rolled into town. Beirut is deploying 15,000 soldiers south of the Litani River as called for in the U.N. resolution which ended the month-long war.

The Lebanese troops are patrolling the Lebanon-Israel border. They will join a multinational, interim United Nations force known as UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon], now 2,000 strong. The U.N. is looking to boost that force to 15,000 troops.

Thursday, the U.N. received international pledges of 3500 for the force, with the largest offer of 2,000 coming from Bangladesh.

France says it will immediately send another 200 soldiers, doubling its contingent to 400 troops. That move disappointed many at the U.N. who sought a bigger commitment from France.

But France's Defense Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, defended her country's decision Friday, saying France is doing its duty to keep the peace. France and Italy have complained that the peacekeeping mandate called for by the U.N. is not clear enough.

However, Italy's government formally agreed to contribute troops on Friday. Prime Minister Romano Prodi did not offer specifics. But he told reporters he had received assurances from U.N. officials that peacekeepers would not be charged with disarming Hezbollah.

UNIFIL is due to take control of posts now abandoned by Israeli soldiers, before transferring control to the Lebanese army.

Meanwhile, international aid groups are trying to help Lebanese villagers rebuild their lives.

One of those organizations is MercyCorps. Spokeswoman Cassandra Nelson spoke about urgent needs in villages across southern Lebanon. "There is nothing on the shelves in these towns and people really don't have any money left in their pockets to buy food, if there is food in the markets. So that's our first priority: it is getting food and drinking water in."

Hezbollah continues distributing money to Lebanese families who lost their homes during the war.

Dozens of people showed up at Hezbollah offices in southern Beirut Friday. Some claimed Hezbollah is paying families up to $12,000 each, enough to rent an apartment for a year and buy furniture. Meanwhile, Lebanon's chief of reconstruction, Al-Fadl Shalaq, says the war inflicted $3.6 billion dollars damage to his country.

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