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UN shifts toward aid projects in Lebanon

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The battle-hardened Spanish Legionnaires aren't all that familiar with having to win hearts and minds. Spain's elite fighting force is more accustomed to operating in hostile environments such as Bosnia, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

But recently in this remote border village, they put on smiles and spent the day handing out sweaters, shawls, and blankets to wide-eyed Lebanese boys and girls.

With calm now prevailing in south Lebanon after the devastating summertime war between Hizbullah and Israel, the UN peacekeeping force here, known as UNIFIL, is beginning to emphasize its humanitarian side, says Milos Strugar, the mission's senior adviser.

That type of role, he says, is crucial to maintaining the good will of the local population. Spanish battalion doctors and a veterinarian now hold regular clinics in the villages, and the soldiers have just begun teaching Spanish language courses. Madrid has allocated €5 million ($6.5 million) to the battalion to be spent on humanitarian projects.

"Our training in Spain is always for war fighting," says Lt. Col. Garcia Vaquero, commander of the Spanish battalion. "But you don't need specific skills here – we rely on our Spanish character. We share a drink with the people, sing and dance."

To be sure, the transition from soldier to humanitarian hasn't always been so smooth. Some residents complain that the UN peacekeeping force – now six times larger than its pre-July war strength – is insensitive to local feelings, charging around in tanks and armored vehicles along the narrow, rutted roads of the border district. And keeping a close eye on the newly arrived troops is a suspicious Hizbullah, which for now is quietly tolerating the increase of foreign troops.

More than a thousand Spanish soldiers are part of UNIFIL, a 29-year-old peacekeeping mission that had been winding down before the 34-day Israeli-Hizbullah war gave it a new lease on life. UNIFIL's prewar strength of 2,000 has risen to more than 12,000 peacekeepers.

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