Another 170 French troops arrived off the south Lebanese coastal town of Naqura on Friday to join 400 French soldiers who are already serving in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

The new batch of soldiers arrived on board the amphibious assault craft Foudre, which was transporting trucks, bulldozers, generators and water purification equipment.

France announced it was committing 1,600 more troops to the force, bringing the country's contribution to 2,000, and the United Nations said a French general would have command over the operation.

Applause 

The French decision was hailed by Israel and the US.

George Bush, the US president, said: "I applaud the decision of France, as well as the significant pledges from Italy and our other important allies. I encourage other nations to make contributions as well."

"This will help speed up the formation of the international force, which along with the Lebanese army, will protect civilians and achieve security and stability"

Fuad Siniora, 
Lebanese prime minister

Fuad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, said on Friday that France's decision would bolster European participation.

He said: "In turn, this will help speed up the formation of the international force, which along with the Lebanese army, will protect civilians and achieve security and stability."

A UN spokesman said on Friday that Alain Pellegrini, the French general in command of UNIFIL, would retain his post.

The force is seen as crucial in shoring up a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah that came into effect on August 14 after a 34-day conflict, under the terms of UN Security Council resolution 1701, co-authored by France and the United States.

Pledge

EU foreign ministers are set to meet with the UN secretary-general in Brussels on Friday to hammer out details of an enlarged peacekeeping force for Lebanon.

The ministers will discuss with Kofi Annan whether other members of the 25-nation bloc will commit troops.

France will retain its command 
of UNIFIL 

Asked if he would get the 15,000 soldiers the United Nations is seeking, Annan said "not today, but we will have a very good start today", adding that he expected to announce the leadership in the afternoon.

Italy has already stepped forward and offered to lead the force, and has pledged up to 3,000 soldiers.

Spain was prepared to commit a battalion of between 700 and 800 troops, military sources were quoted as saying late on Thursday.

Russia said on Friday that it was still considering the possibility of sending troops.

Greece, Finland, Latvia, Sweden and Poland have also indicated they could send soldiers, prompting Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission chief, to say that he was "confident that Europe will provide the necessary support to expand the UNIFIL".

EU leaders have spoken about contributing 4,000 troops to UNIFIL. The pledge, however, will still be far short of the 15,000 target.