- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

NAQOURA, Lebanon — Italian troops assigned to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon are just beginning to clean up unexploded cluster bombs and other munitions from last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The Israeli army recently trained many of the U.N. bomb disposal teams, teaching them to recognize Israeli munitions designs.

Lt. Col. Ciccarelli Giordano, commander of an Italian army cavalry regiment that belongs to a battle group based on a hilltop near the Mediterranean coast, is philosophical about the dangerous ground his troops tread.

“You know what happens after war,” he said.

There are 11,000 troops — including 3,000 Italians — assigned to the U.N. force, up from 3,000 just six months ago.

The 28-year-old U.N. peacekeeping force is adding additional troops and heavier weapons, such as tanks and howitzers, in a bid to deter further conflict. The Italian contingent is drawn from forces recently withdrawn from Iraq.

The Italian battle group’s experiences in Iraq and in providing security for the 2004 Olympics in Athens have helped prepare it for the dangerous job of defusing or destroying unexploded munitions.

In Iraq and Athens, the bomb-disposal specialists tried out new robots and armored suits originally designed for the British army.

“To work safely, they always work from an appropriate distance,” Cpl. Rocco Rapuno said of the six-man ordnance disposal squads.

That means using the claw-equipped, tracked robots and other remote-controlled devices — including one that works like a giant screwdriver attached to a long pole — to take apart ordnance and attach small explosive charges to destroy the pieces. The sounds of these controlled detonations periodically echo off the area’s seaside cliffs.

The squads wear bulky armored suits that protect against shrapnel and blasts.

U.N. survey teams provide maps that are marked with known locations of ordnance.

Italian patrols also take tips from local residents and pass the information along to the bomb squads for investigation.

The disposal specialists sortie in convoys that include an armored vehicle, a trailer for the robot, and an ambulance.

“Yesterday we found a new cluster bomb-contaminated area,” bomb squad Capt. George Colombo said. Minutes later, a distant blast testified to another squad’s work.

The U.N. estimates there are between 700,000 and 1 million unexploded munitions in southern Lebanon, some left over from the 1978 Israeli invasion.

Less than 15,000 have been destroyed thus far, said French Lt. Col. Jerome Salle, a U.N. spokesman.

Col. Salle stressed that military ordnance disposal teams are responsible for clearing those areas near their bases. The rest of southern Lebanon is being cleared by civilian teams from the Mine Action Cooperation Center in the coastal city of Tyre.

But based on the slow progress, “We will be here a long time,” Col. Giordano said.

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