(A French United Nations vehicle drives on a road as Lebanese soldiers watch near the port city of Tyre, in south Lebanon, August 26,2006. French troops have begun arriving in Lebanon to join an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force tasked with maintaining a truce between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon. Photo: Reuters)
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Only a day after Europe pledged to provide nearly 7,000 soldiers, the United Nations enlarged peacekeeping force started taking form, as contributors prepared to send troops from early next week.
Italy, which will provide the biggest contribution with between 2,000 and 3,000 troops, is counting on other nations to follow its lead when it starts dispatching its contingent on Tuesday.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and UN chief Kofi Annan stressed in a telephone conversation Saturday the importance of "rapidly getting under way with the engagements that have been taken", a statement from the Italian government said Saturday.
European nations pledged on Friday in Brussels to provide up to 7,000 troops to reinforce the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which is mandated to expand from about 2,000 currently to 15,000 in order to police a fragile truce between Israel and Hezbollah militants.
In line with Annan's wish to see the the first phase of deployment in several days or a week, Prodi said late Friday that the Italian contingent could be able to leave as soon as Tuesday once his cabinet formally approves the mission on Monday.
Italian newspapers said that Rome could send five ships -- including an aircraft carrier -- to Lebanon with 700 to 1,000 troops on board as part of its promised contingent.
The warship San Marco, the aircraft carrier Garibaldi, the troop carriers San Giusto and San Giorgio and a patrol boat will leave from their respective Italian ports.
In total, 2,500 troops will be on board the Italian ships although less than one thousand would join UNIFIL.
The troops called up for the mission will be from the San Marco naval regiment and the elite Serenissima regiment, both battle-hardened from service in Iraq.
They are to be accompanied by an amphibious force and special-forces troops as well as a reconnaissance unit with Centauro tanks equipped with 105mm guns.
In addition to being the biggest contributor, Italy is to take over command of the UN force next February after France finishes its existing mandate to lead the mission.
French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told Saturday's edition of the The Wall Street Journal that the 2,000 troops France has pledged would arrive within 20 days.
A vanguard of 170 French reinforcements arrived in Lebanon on Friday, making France the only country so far to have actually sent troops for the enlarged force. A dozen French army units are on alert to head to Lebanon once the specific missions of each countries' troops are decided.
Despite early hesitations to make a big contribution to the enlarged force, French President Jacques Chirac agreed to send the extra two battalions after winning a robust mandate for UNIFIL as well as guarantees the force would be able to cope if hostilities flare up again.
The announcement of the French reinforcements spurred some other EU countries into firming up previously vague promises to contribute.
Madrid, which has yet to confirm its contribution, would provide 950 soldiers and 30 to 40 tanks, Spanish radio channel Cadena Ser said Saturday, although when they would leave was not given.
Poland, which already has 214 troops in the existing UNIFIL force, is to lift that to 500 soldiers. The newcomers are likely to be responsible for logistics, like the Polish soldiers already in Lebanon, a Polish foreign ministry spokesman said.
Belgium has said that it will send 300 troops within two months and possibly another 100 later, and Finland is offering 250 although no dates were given for when they would leave.
Greece is offering a frigate, helicopter and special forces while other countries, notably Portugal and Latvia, have indicated they could send soldiers.
Annan said Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia had offered to participate in UNIFIL -- though Israel has opposed contributions from those Muslim countries because of an absence of diplomatic relations.