Author:Venter, Al J.

Speculation has surrounded the formation of an exclusive fighting force in the Lebanon. Now, the curtain has been lifted on one oft be most exclusive commando units in the Arab world. The Middle East was invited to have a look.

Trained, in part, by US Navy SEALS on Lebanese soil and by the British Royal Marines, the new Lebanese force -- which sports balaclavas, Hizbollah-type, black combat fatigues and the snub-nosed Heckler and Koch MP5 assault rifle -- is regarded by some as one of the best combat units in the region. It is said to have already been blooded in a skirmish with an Israeli raiding force.

Falling under the aegis of the Lebanese Navy and commanded by Major Melad Helali, a Christian Maronite officer who has a number of Muslims in his fife, the Marine Commandos unit -- their official designation -- was established more than a year ago. Their present strength is around 100 but there are plans to increase the force to three times that figure over the next two or three years.

Lebanon's Marine Commandos are based at Naval Headquarters at Jounieh, the former all-Christian port to the north of Beirut. These days it is impolitic to mention any distinction between Muslim and Christian in the country, either ethnically or geographically. "We are now one Lebanon. It is the only way forward and we are proud of it," the Major told me.

"This new crack fighting force was formed to fill a particular niche, the Major confirmed. "We found that there was a need for a strong, versatile, combat element: part special forces, part SWAT, part strike force and part reaction unit." But putting the idea into practise was not easy. First the Americans were approached. Concurrently, through diplomatic channels, an approach was made to the Ministry of Defence in London.

Eventually a number of officer candidates were sent to train with the Royal Marines in the UK. Lower ranks were put through their paces in Lebanon by Royal Marine commandos especially imported for the task. The extent of American participation is less clear. However, Major Melad-Helali did confirm that US Navy SEALS were involved. Another source indicated that SEAL training was handled in America and in Lebanon. "But I can tell you this," the Major stated proudly, "a consequence of all these associations has resulted in one of the best multi-purpose special forces units in the region. You judge for yourself."

With three Hueys standing by on the base helicopter pad and half-a-dozen Navy...

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