BEIRUT, Lebanon French President Jacques Chirac said Monday that Hezbollah should not keep a military wing but the French general commanding a beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon said that his troops would not try to disarm the militants.
Chirac's tough statement came as France's Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie visited Lebanon with hundreds of French soldiers about to deploy to the south where they will join the U.N. force that is tasked with maintaining the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
"No country can live if a part of its territory escapes the authority of its government," the French leader said in an interview on Europe-1 radio.
"It is totally normal there be a wing that expresses politically what the Hezbollah think .... What is questionable, is to express this by force, by armed militias," Chirac said in Paris.
The U.N. cease-fire resolution that ended the 34-day war on Aug. 14 stipulated that Hezbollah eventually be disarmed, and the French leader said he wanted to see the resolution implemented "without reservations."
But in practice, neither the Lebanese army nor U.N. soldiers want to provoke a confrontation with the well-trained guerrillas in their southern heartland.
Along with the U.N. troops, who currently number 5,000 but will eventually reach 15,000, an equal number of Lebanese army troops will be deployed in the south in the area that borders Israel.
Major-General Alain Pelligrini told reporters that the main task of his U.N. force, known as UNIFIL, was to ensure that southern Lebanon could not be used as a base for attacks on Israel.
"The disarmament of Hezbollah is not the business of UNIFIL. This is a strictly Lebanese affair, which should be resolved at a national level," he said.
"Our mission is to have a zone between the Blue Line and the Litani (River) where there is no illegal army and from which you cannot launch hostile acts." Pelligrini said, referring to the area between the U.N.-demarcated border with Israel and the river.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview last week that Israel's monthlong offensive had failed to dismantle Hezbollah and boasted that his armed guerrillas were still in the towns and villages near the Israeli border.
Hezbollah fighters, who have controlled parts of south Lebanon for years, are believed to be lying low and blending in with the local population — as they did before the war.
The weak central government in Lebanon has vowed to re-establish its authority over the Hezbollah stronghold in the south. But Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has also made it clear the Lebanese troops would not actively hunt for hidden Hezbollah arsenals.
Hezbollah, which has two ministers in the government, enjoys huge popularity among the large Muslim Shiite community, which increased after it stood up to 34 days of heavy Israeli bombardment.
Alliot-Marie told the French soldiers at a temporary base housing them in Beirut they would be carrying out a mission "whose difficulties and risks I am aware of."
But she said their robust mandate and heavy armor, which includes Leclerc tanks, sophisticated Cobra radar systems and 155 mm artillery cannons, would deter aggression.
"To avoid clashes sometimes you have to dissuade (the other side) by demonstrating you are stronger," the minister said.
The French will contribute 2,000 troops, the second largest contingent in the U.N. force.
France will command it until early next year, when Italy is to take over.
Some 900 French troops who have been staying in Beirut are to begin moving Tuesday to a base in Deir Kifa, east of the port of Tyre. The French deployment to southern Lebanon will take about a week.
China meanwhile said Monday it will increase its peacekeeping force in Lebanon to 1,000.
The Chinese sent 182 peacekeepers to Lebanon at the start of the year — their first peacekeeping contingent to the Middle East — before the war.
More than 1,000 people died in the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, most of them Lebanese civilians.