Italy sends troops to “long, risky” Lebanon mission

ABOARD THE GARIBALDI – The first 800 troops of an Italian contingent in a major U.N. peacekeeping force for Lebanon set sail on Tuesday on a mission that Rome warned would be “long and risky.”

The aircraft carrier Garibaldi, flagship of the Italian fleet, met four other Navy ships off the Mediterranean port of Brindisi for an official send-off for the landing force of 803 plus 1,350 sailors and air defense crew taking them to Lebanon.

Italy will eventually send a total of 3,000 troops, making it the biggest contributor to a force authorized by the United Nations to total up to 15,000. Rome has rallied support for the mission among European neighbors worried that the U.N. mandate for the troops was not clear enough. Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Defense Minister Arturo Parisi were flown aboard the Garibaldi to address the troops.

“We Italians are proud of you and we are certain that thanks to your efforts, a country that has been marked by pain will find hopes of peace,” said Prodi on the flight deck.

Troops in combat dress and sailors in white lined the decks of the flotilla at its rendezvous 30 miles off the coast. Fighter jets and helicopters stood by on the Garibaldi.

Antonio Bianco, a military policeman and veteran of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, said after saying goodbye to his family that he would celebrate his 31st birthday in Lebanon.

“My wife understands and I explained to my little son that Daddy is going far away to help other people, other children like him,” Bianco told Reuters on the Garibaldi.

The convoy will reach Lebanon by Friday, when the Italians are expected to trade their camouflage for U.N. blue helmets.

Parisi defined it as “among the most delicate and demanding missions since the end of World War Two” which promised to be “long, risky, expensive and difficult but a righteous mission.”