In an implicit warning to the militia, Elias Murr, Lebanon's defence minister, said on Sunday that anyone who violated a cease-fire deal by firing rockets into Israel from Lebanon would be arrested and tried by a military court.

 

"Any violation ... any rocket that would give Israel a justification [to hit Lebanon] will be treated harshly," Murr told a press conference.

 

"It will be considered as direct collaboration with the enemy," Murr said, adding that those responsible "will be tried and referred to a military tribunal".

 

French troops

 

Meanwhile, about 150 French troops departed France on Sunday bound for Lebanon where they are to reinforce UN peacekeepers charged with preventing further conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

 

Maritime officials said the troops set sail from the southern port of Toulon, and would arrive in Lebanon on Thursday or Friday to join an advance element of 50 French soldiers who landed there on Saturday.

 

The troops are military engineers whose job will include repairing roads damaged by bombardments and clearing unexploded bombs and mines.

 

France has sent engineers to
repair roads damaged in the war

They are to be deployed "close to the Israeli border", their commander, Colonel Christophe Issac, said.

 

"Our mission, which still has some details to be defined, will be to support Unifil (the UN Interim Force in Lebanon) and Lebanese army as they redeploy in the area of southern Lebanon," he said.

 

Another soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel Laurent Romeur, said their mission should last "two to four months, but we are preparing to stay another two months beyond that".

 

The deployment is far below what was expected from France when it co-wrote a UN Resolution 1701 with the United States calling for a combat-ready UN force of up to 15,000 troops to bring peace to southern Lebanon.

 

That resolution, passed unanimously just over a week ago, led to a cease-fire and the withdrawal of most of Israel's forces after 34 days of war with Hezbollah Shia Muslim guerrillas.

 

France had been expected to offer 2,500 to 4,000 soldiers to the force, but Jacques Chirac, the French president, has made a preliminary offer of just 200 troops while leaving open the option of sending more.

 

UN mandate

 

In the meantime, Chirac has sought to muster contributions from countries such as Italy and Turkey while seeking to clarify the UN force's mandate and rules of engagement before committing any more troops.

 

France is particularly unhappy that the UN mandate allows Unifil to use force only in circumstances of direct self-defence, and not to enforce the resolution as it had sought.

 

Our mission, which still has some details to be defined, will be to support Unifil (the UN Interim Force in Lebanon) and Lebanese army as they redeploy in the area of southern Lebanon"

Colonel Christophe Issac of the French army

A senior Israeli foreign ministry official told AFP on Sunday that France's meagre initial contribution had "provoked astonishment and confusion" in Israel, which is concerned that Hezbollah will re-arm as the UN dithers.

 

"France talked about the possibility of sending several thousand soldiers who were due to constitute the backbone of the international force in Lebanon... We are quite far from this," the official said.

 

George Bush, the US president, has noted that "there have been different signals coming out of France". European newspapers have said France has "lost its nerve" and is "afraid" of getting sucked into an intractable conflict. The US is not contributing any troops to the Unifil.

 

Resolution 1701 calls for Israeli troops to withdraw from southern Lebanon in tandem with the arrival of Lebanese troops to the Hezbollah heartland and a beefed-up UN force.

 

Unifil was supposed to add 3,500 troops to its existing 2,000-strong force within 10 days as Israel pulls back from areas it occupied in its devastating month-long offensive.