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A report released Saturday said the German contribution to a peacekeeping force in Lebanon - navy ships plus surveillance from the air - would involve around 1,200 service personnel.

A Defense Ministry spokesman said he could not confirm the report, published in Der Spiegel news magazine, because the details of the contribution were still being negotiated.

Also Saturday, German Vice Chancellor Franz Muentefering told a German newspaper that sailors must be empowered to board ships against the will of their crew in order to prevent arms smuggling to Lebanon.

"To prevent arms smuggling from the sea, we need a robust mandate that allows the navy to stop and check suspicious ships against their will," Muentefering was quoted as saying in Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Germany is offering to patrol Lebanon's coast rather than send ground troops as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force after the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah militants.

Muentefering said German forces faced a "serious" role in the UN mission, which includes an arms embargo against Hezbollah and other militias.

"We cannot expect that arms suppliers will see it as a friendly act if German and other troops guard the coast and prevent their weapons deliveries," he said.

Berlin says it can only finalize its contribution to the UN mission once the mandate of the force is agreed upon.

Muentefering said he was confident that parliament as well as the Cabinet would approve the deployment - a requirement under German law.

The German coalition currently in power - consisting of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and Muentefering's Social Democrats - has an overwhelming majority in parliament.

France says UNIFIL troops will arrive in Lebanon within 3 weeksFrench Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has said that her country will send the 2,000 troops it has pledged for a UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon within three weeks, Israel Radio reported early Saturday.

According to the report, in an interview Alliot-Marie gave to the Wall Street Journal, the minister said that France had received an important clarification regarding the use of force in Lebanon.

France had recently said that it was wary of sending troops into the Lebanese quagmire without clear rules of engagement that would assure their safety.

The UN had agreed to allow troops to open fire on Hezbollah militants if they block the force's patrol vehicles, even if the guerrillas do not shoot first, Israel Radio said.

The minister also told CNN that the new rules of engagement include having a single commander on the ground at all times, as well as the use of heavy weaponry.

UN troops serving in other countries have been forbidden to do so in the past, according to the report.

Lebanon on Friday welcomed Europe's decision to accept "effective participation" in the international force, saying the move would help the Lebanese government reassert its authority in south Lebanon and restore stability to the war-ravaged country.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said in a statement Friday that "the European governments have shown all the support for Lebanon during its ordeal."

The prime minister thanked the French government and President Jacques Chirac for "standing by Lebanon to stop the Israeli aggression on Lebanon and helping Lebanon to get out of this crisis."

According to Siniora's aides, the premier has received a call from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Chirac, briefing him on the European Union government's meeting which was held earlier in Brussels.

A Lebanese government official said late on Friday, "the European Union's decision to heavily participate ... will buttress Lebanon's efforts to impose its authority in south Lebanon, consolidate stability and support the implementation of [UN] Resolution 1701."

The official also said Hezbollah would "study carefully" a proposal for a UN weapons exclusion zone that would be aimed at disarming Hezbollah militants.

The official, close to Siniora, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make statements to the media.

Hezbollah officials refused to comment on the EU's decision to participate heavily in the international force in Lebanon.

Earlier Friday Annan said European nations would provide the backbone of a 15,000-strong UN peace force for Lebanon and he had asked France to lead it.

The UN resolution calls for the force in southern Lebanon, known as UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon), to expand from 2,000 troops to up to 15,000.

Long-awaited clarification over the leadership of the force came after Annan held emergency talks with European foreign ministers to overcome EU members' reluctance to send soldiers on what is seen as a risky mission.

"When you put it all together, Europe is providing the backbone to the force, and I am very, very encouraged by the... commitments we have received here at this meeting," he said.

Countries feared getting caught in the crossfire of any fresh hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas and wanted assurances they would be able to defend themselves adequately, diplomats said.

"The significant move of the week was Annan coming here," said one envoy, adding that his presence reassured a number of nations that had previously hesitated to confirm pledges.

After Italy pledged up to 3,000 troops and France 2,000, diplomats at the Brussels meeting said Spain was ready to send up to 1,200 troops.

Poland said it was prepared to contribute about 500 troops, Belgium offered up to 400 and a diplomat from current EU president Finland said it was readying a company of up to 250.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Europe's total contribution would be between 6,500 and 7,000 troops.

"With the commitments that were made around the table today, we get to 6,500 to 7,000 troops," he told a news conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

Douste-Blazy also said the UN would disarm unauthorized armed men in southern Lebanon's "exclusion zone."

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said 8,000 to 9,000 would be deployed from Europe.

"Now that we have got the guarantees from the bigger countries on numbers, others were happy to come on board and it looks like once the numbers are fleshed out we will have in the region of 8,000 to 9,000 troops," Ahern told reporters.

That would make the Europeans the core of the UN force.

Asked before meeting the ministers whether he expected to be able to raise all the troops he sought to police a fragile truce, Annan said: "Not today, but I will get the 15,000."

After the talks, he told a news conference: "I have asked France to lead UNIFIL II until February 2007," adding that the leadership would then rotate to Italy.

Earlier Friday, French President Jacques Chirac said he does not believe the UN force in Lebanon needs 15,000 troops, calling that figure excessive.

Chirac said the territory in question was too small to require that many peacekeepers. "My feeling is that the figure that was put forward at the beginning of discussions - 15,000 for a reinforced UNIFIL - was a figure that was quite excessive," he said.

Belgium will send an initial 302 troops to the expanded force, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt told a news conference Friday, and its contribution would later rise to nearly 400 troops.