France: Int'l fleet won't employ force

UN ships will not interfere with boats entering or leaving Lebanese waters.

naval patrol aiming 88 (photo credit: )
naval patrol aiming 88
(photo credit: )
France announced on Friday that the international naval force designated to patrol Lebanon's territorial waters would not be authorized to employ force to stop ships from entering or leaving Lebanon. A spokesman for the French defense ministry said that the international craft would only provide assistance for Lebanese ships, and would not interfere with other nations' boats, Israel Radio reported. Earlier Friday, Israel began to remove its naval blockade of Lebanon, imposed almost two months after Hizbullah launched its cross-border raid and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini, the French commander of UNIFIL, said government officials informed him Friday afternoon that the blockade was being lifted. Government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said she didn't have immediate confirmation that the final order had been given to lift the siege, but said earlier Friday that the blockade would be ended within hours. Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, announced that a multinational task force, commanded by an Italian admiral, had begun patrolling Lebanese territorial waters. The Italian Admiral, aboard an Italian aircraft carrier, received command of the patrols off the Lebanese coast and Israeli Naval ships began returning back to Israeli waters. Israeli Naval officials said they knew the Admiral because they had conducted Naval exercises with him in the past. They were confident that he would command an effective force in enforcing an arms embargo off the Lebanese coast. In addition to the Italians, ships from France and Greece have taken over the task of blocking weapons shipments from reaching Hizbullah. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced the decision to lift the air and sea closure on Lebanon following heavy international pressure - a decision that was in direct opposition to an IDF recommendation to keep the siege in place. The General Staff favored the blockade as a way to maintain pressure on Lebanon to enforce the arms ban on Hizbullah and to take action that would lead to the release of the kidnapped soldiers. Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the decision to lift the closure was made following a request by the United States. He said Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora had asked the international force to take responsibility for the air and sea lanes. "There will be rules in place to inspect goods, and the French and Germans will enforce them," Peretz said. Senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office said Israel maintained all along that it would lift the blockade once international forces were present at crossing points to prevent arms smuggling. The Lebanese government and the United Nations have agreed that German naval forces would join the Italian, French and Greek flotilla. Germany has volunteered to deploy warships to the Mediterranean Sea to patrol the Lebanese coast and ensure that weapons are not smuggled through the ports. A German military source told The Jerusalem Post that Berlin viewed its role very seriously and believed that the navy patrols would be effective and meet Israeli standards. The German force is expected to arrive in about two weeks. A senior source in the Prime Minister's Office said that despite the lifting of the air and sea blockade, Israel would enforce the arms embargo along the Syrian-Lebanese border if needed. "We reserve the right to stop any attempt to smuggle in weapons and supplies across the border from Syria to Hizbullah," the official said. Olmert's decision to lift the siege, a member of the IDF General Staff said, came despite the military's recommendation to the diplomatic echelon to keep the siege in place. "Our recommendation is to keep up the blockade and to continue flying over Lebanon without restrictions," he said. Under the air siege, the officer revealed, the IAF was able to continue flying drones over Lebanon. They collected intelligence and kept a close eye on the Lebanese border with Syria to see if weapons were being transferred to Hizbullah, or if it was attempting to smuggle the kidnapped IDF reservists - Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - out of Lebanon. The assumption within the defense establishment, he said, was that the kidnapped soldiers were alive and were being held in Lebanon. The IDF, he said, was holding five "valuable" Hizbullah captives who could be used as a bargaining chips in a prisoner swap with Hizbullah.