SHEAITIEH, Lebanon: Zeinab Misilmani stands outside the closed iron gates of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon’s Turkish contingent in the southern village of Sheaitieh in Tyre, patiently waiting for an Arabic interpreter to let her into the Turkish dispensary for a medical checkup. A Turkish guard greets Misilmani at the door and opens the gate, leading her to the interpreter, who tells the resident doctor she is in need of medicine. A major scale back in Turkey’s operations in the south, however, will likely see the end of these services, as a UNIFIL spokesperson announced Saturday that Turkey had made the decision to withdraw the bulk of its peacekeepers from the mission beginning the first week of September.
About 280 troops are set to leave the contingent with 58 remaining as part of the maritime task force.
Medical work is part of a series of social services carried out by the Turkish contingent’s personnel, who live in fear of reprisals from the families of nine Lebanese pilgrims kidnapped in the Syrian town of Azaz over a year ago.
The pilgrims were kidnapped after having crossed from the Turkish border in May of 2012. While two were released a few months later, nine are still being kept captive. During this time, UNIFIL’s Turkish contingent has gradually scaled back its activities, while boosting security measures after the families of the hostages threatened to attack Turkish interests in the country in an attempt to apply pressure on both the Turkish and Lebanese government to win the release of their relatives.
Turkey is a supporter of the Syrian opposition and the relatives of the captive pilgrims believe the country holds some clout in negotiations to secure their release.
“The Turkish soldiers are as good as the other UNIFIL peacekeepers from other contingents and we share their good intentions. But their government has to do more to release the Lebanese pilgrims held hostage, and it is capable of doing that,” local resident Hasan Banjak said.
The majority of the troops pulling out in September are from the engineering force, comprising the Turkish Engineering Construction Company. After joining UNIFIL in October of 2006, it has since carried out many reconstruction projects, including roads, schools and shelters.
It has also donated computers, generators and other materials to schools and municipalities, in addition to providing health services for the residents of villages in the south.
UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said the move to scale back operations was standard and that the Turkish contingent was still present in south Lebanon, despite mounting security threats:
“Nothing has changed for the Turkish troops in the UNIFIL, their operational activity is still regular.”
Referring to the decision to withdraw its troops, Tenenti said, “They [the Turkish contingent] take orders from the U.N. not Turkey.”
“As I always say, UNIFIL is under the U.N. mandate and only implements the U.N.’s agenda,” he added.
Despite fears, security sources in the south ruled out the possibility of attacks targeting the Turkish contingent before some leave in September.
“Targeting them will not only be seen as an attack on Turkey but also on the United Nations Security Council and Resolution 1701 and UNIFIL’s mandate, which would undermine the peacekeeping mission and prompt European countries to withdraw from the peacekeeping force,” the source said, adding that European countries were already apprehensive about tension between their peacekeeping contingents and the local authorities loyal to Hezbollah.
Relations have been especially tense in the towns of Khiam and Bint Jbeil, where the Italian and French contingents are stationed, after the European Union officially blacklisted Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization.
Back at the headquarters of UNIFIL’s Turkish contingent, passers-by can see its soldiers train and keep watch on neighboring towns from their high towers.
Amid Turkish flags fluttering up high, several soldiers took photos posing near a sculpture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern state of Turkey.
The sculpture and the Turkish peacekeepers will likely not stand in the same place this time next year.