ABOARD THE GIUSEPPE GARIBALDI (AP) - Prime Minister Romano Prodi saluted Italian soldiers setting off for southern Lebanon on Tuesday, expressing pride in the contribution they were making to peace in the Middle East and concern over the risks they will face.
About 1,000 soldiers bound for UN peacekeeping duties gathered on the flight deck of the Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italy's only aircraft carrier, some 40 kilometers off Brindisi, for a brief send-off ceremony for the five-ship fleet.
Prodi and Defense Minister Arturo Parisi boarded the carrier from a helicopter, as soldiers and sailors blew whistles to welcome them.
"We will follow you with trepidation because it is a delicate mission of huge historic significance," Prodi told the force. "But we will also follow you with pride and trust, knowing that although you carry arms, you're going to Lebanon exclusively to bring peace."
Some of the crew shared the mixed feelings.
"This mission came all of a sudden," said Sgt. Gaspare Scavone, 33, recalled from leave for his first mission abroad. "We're still in the dark as to what we will have to do once we're in the area."
A thousand marines and engineer corps specialists were leaving as the vanguard of a 2,500-strong contingent Italy is contributing to the expanded UNIFIL force. It is the largest national contingent so far committed to the force, which is to help the Lebanese army maintain a cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah.
Three landing platform dock ships and a corvette -a lightly armed warship used for coastal duty - also departed Brindisi, while a small frigate already in Cyprus was to join the Italian mission, the Defense Ministry said.
The government approved sending 2,500 troops on Monday evening. The plan now goes to parliament for approval, but the ships set sail before the vote.
The Italian troops were expected to reach the coast of Lebanon on Friday. Chief of Staff Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola said the contingent was likely to be deployed in and around Tyre.
Italian troops will be deployed in two phases. In the first, to be carried out in September and October, Italy plans to have an initial entry force of 1,000 troops on the ground and the rest on the Garibaldi and the other ships. The last two months of the year will see 2,450 troops on the ground and a remaining 200 or so on the ships, he said.
The government also approved a â‚¬30 million aid package for Lebanon on Monday.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked Italy to command the 15,000-member Lebanon force starting in February 2007, after France. And an Italian general, Fabrizio Castagnetti, will head the mission's new strategic command center at the peacekeeping department at UN headquarters in New York.
The government authorized â‚¬187 million in spending for the peacekeeping mission until December 31.