Germany handed over command of the UN naval mission off the Lebanese coast to Italy on Friday. The mission, which did not confiscate any weapons, was called success by German Defense Minister Jung.
Italian Rear Admiral Ruggiero di Biase is to take charge of the UN Maritime Task Force, which was created to end the 33-day conflict between Israel and Lebanon in 2006 and to prevent weapons from being smuggled by sea to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, on hand at the ceremony on the German frigate Bayern on Friday, Feb. 29, said the mission was a success.
"We can guarantee that no weapons were smuggled by sea," he said, adding that in the last 17 months some 13,000 ships had been checked and no weapons were discovered.
The deployment represents the Bundeswehr's first deployment to the Middle East.
UN mission continues indefinitely
Germany contributed 2,400 personnel, including 625 soldiers, to the naval mission and led the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for 17 months, with a maritime force consisting of among others two frigates, two supply ships. The multinational force also includes ships from France, Spain and Portugal.
Germany is set to reduce its presence from seven ships to four and the number of sailors to 500.
Jung said it remains unclear how long the UN mission will continue to patrol along the Lebanese coast. The German ships' mandate is scheduled for parliamentary renewal in September.
US assistance that wasn't requested
The handover comes amid reports that the United States is sending the USS Cole warship toward waters off the Lebanese coast in a move it says is intended to support regional stability.
But Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said that his country has not requested the Americans help and that the ship would not enter Lebanese waters.
"The Lebanese government did not call for any intervention ... The government refuses to allow Lebanon to become an arena for settling regional conflicts," Saniora said, adding that the only foreign ships in Lebanese waters were part of the UN mission.
White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe confirmed Thursday that the US had sent a warship to the area in what he described as "a show of support for regional stability."
Foreign interference in Lebanon
The USS Cole, a destroyer armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, was dispatched to the area from Malta amid the political crisis in Lebanon that Washington has blamed on Syrian interference.
Hezbollah member of parliament Hassan Fadlallah said Friday that "sending a warship and threatening military force is proof that the American administration has failed in imposing its policies and hegemony on our region."
"The Americans are trying to support their (anti-Syrian ruling majority) allies in Lebanon with its warships," he said.
Lebanon has been locked in a deep political division between the Western-backed ruling majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition, which is supported by Syria and Iran. The crisis has prevented political parties from electing a new president to replace pro-Syrian politician Emile Lahoud, whose term ended Nov. 23.
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