200 French Troops Arrive in Beirut for Deployment in South

Italian ships take over patrol against arms smuggling as Israel ends blockade of Lebanese coast.

A ship carrying 200 French troops docked Saturday at Beirut's port as the soldiers prepared to head to south Lebanon to join the UN peacekeeping force.

The amphibious ship La Foudre arrived around 8:30 A.M. and soldiers began filing out shortly afterward, witnesses and an AP photographer said.

The ship, which sailed from the Mediterranean port of Toulon on September 4, is also carrying some 100 armored personnel carriers, trucks, weaponry and equipment for the troops.

France, which is temporarily leading the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, has already contributed 250 troops.

President Jacques Chirac said on Aug. 24 that France would increase its contribution to the UN force to 2,000 troops. Additional troops were expected to arrive in the next few weeks. The entire UNIFIL force is expected to increase to 15,000 soldiers.

France's contribution is to include Leclerc tanks, surface-to-surface artillery, short-range anti-aircraft missiles and radar.

On Friday, a combined task force of French, Italian and Greek warships began patrolling Lebanon's Mediterranean coast, a mission it will carry out for about two months until a longer-term force of German vessels moves in.

French military officials said a dozen vessels could take part in the initial operation, patrolling six miles off the coast while Lebanese military vessels operate closer to shore.

International officials are also helping Lebanese authorities at ports, land border crossings and Beirut's airport to ensure Hezbollah guerrillas are not rearmed.

Israel ended its naval blockade of Lebanon on Friday afternoon, turning over monitoring of the country's coastline to Italian naval vessels, a government spokeswoman said.

"The Italian-led task force will continue to enforce the international embargo against the supply of armaments to Hezbollah," said government spokeswoman Miri Eisin.

Italian and United Nations officials had announced several hours earlier that the blockade was over. But Eisin said it took additional time to coordinate the final details.

Israel imposed the blockade shortly after the outbreak of fighting on July 12 to prevent arms from reaching Hezbollah. It lifted an air blockade of Lebanon on Thursday.

Earlier Friday, the head of UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon), Major General Alain Pellegrini, said that the blockade had been lifted.

A Lebanese government official said that the UN had informed Beirut that a joint French, Italian and Greek naval force began patrolling the Lebanese coastline at 12:30 P.M.

Israel coordinated the handover of control along the Lebanese coast to the Italian navy, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said earlier Friday.

Abductees' families upset by blockade decisionThe families of the two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah were furious at the government's decision to lift the blockade.

The families of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser met Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and demanded he enter into direct negotiations with Hezbollah to free their sons.

"Such negotiations will have a price and we demand that Israel agree to release Lebanese prisoners as part of it," said Shlomo Goldwasser, the father of Ehud.

However, Israeli Arab newspaper Assinara reported Friday that Hezbollah was insisting that Israel release convicted Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, Israel Radio reported. The paper said there would be no deal unless Kuntar - who is in jail for his role in a 1979 raid on Nahariya that left four people dead, including a 4-year-old girl - is freed.

Goldwasser blasted the government and the international community for not acting to free the soldiers. He said the families had expected Israel to remove the blockade only after receiving a sign of life from the kidnapped soldiers.

"We see all the states of the world mobilize to help Lebanon's renovation and give it humanitarian aid, and no one keeps the part about the UN Security Council Resolution regarding our sons. It is inconceivable that only one part of the resolution is carried out and not the other. We demand the government act promptly to find a mediator to negotiate directly with Hezbollah," he said.

Goldwasser said he did not believe the war in Lebanon was intended to free the captured soldiers. "There are simpler ways to free them. The war was necessary because of Hezbollah's presence near the border."

Eldad Regev's brother, Benny, said after the meeting that the government had let the families down twice. The first time when it failed to bring the soldiers home at the end of the war, and the second time when it decided to remove the blockade of Lebanon.

"We are afraid and concerned for the soldiers' safety," Regev told journalists. "The prime minister promised us again that he would do everything to bring them home. We hope he will keep his promise, unlike previous promises that were broken."

He said that removing the blockade leaves Israel without an important instrument in the struggle for releasing the soldiers.

The abductees "are currently in Lebanon and once the blockade is removed, they could be taken to Tehran," he said.

Miki Goldwasser, Ehud's mother, spoke about the films recently broadcast on Channel 10. "The abduction at Har Dov was an almost exact copy of the way our sons were captured. It is evident that no lessons have been learned since then. We intend to demand more forcefully from the government to take action to free Ehud and Eldad."

Attorney Yaakov Neeman, a member of the public committee to return the captured soldiers, reminded the ministers that they are directly responsible for the abductees.

"If the government doesn't do what it has to do, it would be abandoning its soldiers. It has various means of action and must use them immediately," he said.