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Turkish troops await orders in south Lebanon

(AFP) / 18 November 2006

SHAITIYEH, Lebanon - Nearly a month after setting up their base near this small village in southern Lebanon, Turkish troops — the first force from a Muslim country to join the beefed-up UN peacekeeping presence here — are ready for their first mission.

Turkish troops“The operational preparedness of our force is at its utmost,” the contingent’s commander, Major Serdar Fatih Yilmaz, told reporters at the Turkish base perched on a hilltop some 7.5 kilometres (five miles) from the port of Tyre.

“We expect to be given a task after the first evaluation of our operational capacity on November 21,” he said, adding that their first mission would likely be building another base for United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

The 261-strong Turkish contingent consists mainly of army engineers who will help with reconstruction after the 34-day war between Lebanon and Israel, which claimed the lives of more than 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians.

Turkey says the number of its troops serving in UNIFIL will ultimately reach 681, including those serving on three vessels to be part of the German-led navy task force patrolling the Lebanese coast to prevent arms being smuggled to Hezbollah militia.

But the Turkish government, which obtained parliamentary approval to send peacekeepers to Lebanon despite strong public opposition and street protests, has underlined that its soldiers will not be a combatant force and will not be involved in the disarming of the Hezbollah.

Many opponents of the deployment were concerned that Turkey, a mainly Muslim but strictly secular ally of Israel, would be drawn into fighting Muslims. Yilmaz saw no risk of that.

“There is no threat whatsoever in this region,” Yilmaz asserted. ”We have no fear of any attacks. There is no threat evaluation against the Turkish soldier.”

For Corporal Fatih Sahin, the base is as safe as home.

“My family thinks that I am in a war zone and that I may be facing danger, but in fact I am just as safe here as I am in Turkey,” he said.

The base is home to a demining team, but Yilmaz underlined that their task would be to sweep areas where the Turkish engineer corps are to work.

“They will have no role in the general clearing of Israeli sub-munitions,” he said against the backdrop of occasional explosions coming from the fields surrounding the base where a UN-led operation is underway to remove unexploded ordnance.

So far busy with developing their base, Turkish troops appear eager for the go-ahead from UNIFIL headquarters to fully involve themselves in the force’s operations.

“What is important for us is to serve peace. We are ready for any task that they will give us,” Sergeant Dogan Baskaya said. “Our only problem is being away from our loved ones.”

The contingent are the first Turkish troops to have set foot on Arab soil since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and its subsequent collapse, ending four centuries of dominance of the Arab World, often marked by difficult relations.

The return of Turkish troops has led to resentment in Lebanon, particularly among the country’s 140,000-strong Armenian community who accuse Ottoman Turks of genocide against their kinsmen in 1915-1917.

But Turkish officers say they are on good terms with the locals.

“When we are on duty, those who pass by often wave or smile at us,” corporal Sahin said.

Base commander Yilmaz also spoke of good ties with the villagers and underlined that his troops were currently building a football pitch for the locals after the mayor requested one.

“We act under a principle of impartiality. We do not differentiate between Muslim or Christian or Armenian,” he said.



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