US readies peacekeeping force for Sinai

A battalion from the United States elite 82nd Airborne Division will take up positions in an idyllic resort area on the eastern Sinai coast next month as part of an international peacekeeping force.

The 600 paratroopers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, are part of the 2,500 -man Multinational Force and Observers set up under the Camp David accords to serve as a buffer between Israel and Egypt after the former completes its withdrawal from Sinai April 25. The international force is to be in position by March 20.

The Americans, who are providing one of the three combat battalions in the force, have drawn a vacation paradise as their sector. Headquartered at Sharm-el-Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, the Americans will have available miles of beautiful beaches and one of the most acclaimed deep-sea diving areas in the world.

The Americans will also be responsible for manning the barren island of Tiran just off Sharm el-Sheikh guarding the Straits of Tiran. It was Egypt's 1967 closure of the straits to ships heading for the Israeli port of Eilat which led to the six-day war.

The two other combat battalions in the force, from Columbia and Fiji, will man the northern part of the line and be based at an Israeli airbase to be handed over in two months to Egypt. The three battalions will man some 35 observation points and patrols.

In a meeting with leaders of the force this week, Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon warned them against attempts by Palestinians to smuggle arms from Egypt into Israel through their lines. Israeli forces have frustrated a number of such attempts.

Other nations participating in the force include: Australia, which will be dispatching 10 manned helicopters; France, which is sending a medical unit; Italy, which will have a small naval unit patrolling the Straits of Tiran; Holland with a communications unit; and Britain with logistic and administrative personnel.

In addition to the military arm of the force, there will also be an American civilian observer unit, which will make regular inspections of the section of the Sinai to be demilitarized and of the limited-force zones on both sides of the border.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the paratroopers will also serve as a potential combat spearhead for America's Rapid Deployment Force, available for a speedy drop into the nearby Gulf.

A US State Department official Feb. 17, however, called the Post's story by its military correspondent Hirsh Goodman, ''untrue.''

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