The first major deployment of international forces to monitor a ceasefire between Hezbollah militants and Israel began arriving in Lebanon Saturday. The Italian contingent will help keep the peace, but not try to disarm Hezbollah.
They began arriving early Saturday by helicopter. By mid-afternoon, 10 amphibious vehicles had come ashore on a beachfront in Tyre, while other equipment was diverted further south to the port of Naqoura. A spokesman for the Italian troops said rough seas were slowing the landing operation, and by late afternoon, many of the peacekeepers were still aboard four ships in the Mediterranean.
Conditions permitting, the Italians expect to have nearly 900 troops on the ground in south Lebanon by Sunday to enhance the expanded UNIFIL force here. An additional 1,500 Italian troops will be deployed in a second phase in the next few months.
The Italians join 200 French military engineers, who arrived late last month to bolster the 2,000 strong UNIFIL force that has been in south Lebanon for more than two decades.
U.N. Resolution 1701 authorized the expansion of the peacekeeping force to up to 15-thousand troops. UNIFIL spokesman Alexander Ivanov explains their mandate.
"Their mission is, a) to monitor the ceasefire; b) to provide support to humanitarian aid convoys and the civilian population; and, c) to support the Lebanese army in taking control of the borders and redeploying in south Lebanon after the Israeli Defense Forces withdraw from that area," he said.
But UNIFIL force commander Major General Alain Pellegrini of France told reporters, it is not in the peacekeepers' mandate to disarm Hezbollah militants. "This job is a job to the Lebanese army, and we are here to assist the Lebanese army to do its job," he explained.
Meanwhile, in Beirut, legislators gathered at parliament, and began a sit-in to protest Israels land, sea and air blockade of the country.
The siege has been choking the Lebanese economy and causing humanitarian suffering for more than six weeks. Israel says it will not lift the blockade until U.N. troops are deployed along the Lebanese border with Syria to prevent arms from reaching Hezbollah. Lebanon says it will deploy its own soldiers there, but not UNIFIL troops.
Nabih Berri, the speaker of the parliament and an ally of Hezbollah, called the blockade an act of Israeli aggression on Lebanon.
He said the blockade violates Lebanon's sovereignty, as well as the U.N. resolution that ended the fighting, because it is in itself a hostile act against Lebanon.
Legislators say they will take turns remaining at the parliament until the siege is lifted.