A naval task force with the first 1,000 Italian troops set sail for Lebanon Tuesday following a farewell ceremony in the waters off the southern coast of Italy. Up to 2,500 Italian troops will be deployed as part of the U.N. mission in Lebanon before the end of the year.

A farewell ceremony for the first contingent of Italian troops headed to Lebanon as part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission was held Tuesday aboard the flagship of the Italian navy, the Garibaldi aircraft carrier.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Defense Minister Arturo Parisi were flown aboard the aircraft carrier in the waters off the southern Italian port city of Brindisi.

The defense minister told the troops this is no doubt among the most delicate and demanding missions since the end of World War II. He said it would be a long, risky, costly and difficult mission. But, he added, this was a necessary United Nations deployment to stabilize the area.

Prime Minister Prodi said Italy, Europe and the international community could not tolerate another crisis in such a vital area as the Mediterranean. Since the center-left took power in Italy in the spring, Prodi's government has focused on increasing its role in the Mediterranean and said Europe needs to pay more attention to the Middle East.

Italy has taken a leading role in Lebanon pledging the largest contingent of any country with 2,500 men for the U.N. mission and agreeing to lead the peacekeepers on the ground from February. The government has attracted wide support for the deployment in Lebanon even from leftists and peace activists.

Italians see the mission as very different from the troop deployment in Iraq. Some see soldiers in Lebanon as necessary to stop Israeli aggression. Others see it as a necessary step to stop the violence and extremism of Hezbollah.

Addressing the troops, Mr. Prodi said Tuesday Italians would follow the work of the soldiers with pride and trust, because although they are carrying weapons, they are going to Lebanon exclusively to bring peace.

The naval task force that set sail from Italy's southern coast consisted in four navy ships and an aircraft carrier. The troops are expected to disembark starting Friday at the Lebanese port of Naqoura. Navy officials said that initially the ground troops would be deployed in the region of Tyre.