BEIRUT — The first Armenian peacekeeping contingent of 32 soldiers has arrived in Lebanon as part of the UNIFIL mission along the southern region bordering Israel.
The Armenian peacekeepers would be deployed in three southern villages, rotated every six months. The contingent would be “ensuring respect for the safety of the U.N. staff”.
While Armenia has been part of several U.N. peacekeeping forces since 2004, the country has long opposed sending troops to Lebanon, over concerns for the large Armenian community in Lebanon.
Plans for the Armenian deployment in Lebanon were first announced by Yerevan in June last year. Armenia’s top army general visited Italy shortly afterwards to discuss its practical modalities. The UNIFIL mission is led by an Italian general and numbers around 11,000 troops from over 30 countries.
The deployment issue was broached during Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian’s visit to Lebanon in 2012, and Armenia has had an observer in UNIFIL in preparation for the contingent’s arrival.
The troops were flown to Lebanon on Wednesday night after a ceremony at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport that was attended by Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian and Italy’s ambassador to Armenia, Giovanni Ricciulli. Many of them have previously participated in Western-led multinational missions in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You are going to Lebanon primarily to make your contribution to international peace and security,” Ohanian told the departing troops in a speech. He emphasized the fact that Lebanon is home to a sizable and influential Armenian community.
“Lebanon is not Kosovo or Afghanistan,” the minister went on. “Lebanon is part of the zone of Armenia’s security interests in the Middle East. So be aware that with your service in the UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon) you will be contributing to Armenia’s external security.”
Ohanian described the deployment as “historic” in ensuing comments to reporters. “Our compatriots have lived on the Mediterranean cost, in Lebanon, for many years side by side with peoples of various religious. It is extremely important to maintain peace there,” he said