The first units of the famed French Foreign Legion arrived Saturday in Saudi Arabia, joining the largest deployment of French forces overseas since Algeria's war of independence.
About 150 men marched silently off the ferry Le Corse, which docked in this Red Sea port after an eight-day trip from Toulon. Docking was delayed more than two hours by thick morning fog.Two cargo ships, the Atlas and the Cap Ferat, docked Saturday with some of the French force's 250 trucks. Five more ships carrying troops and equipment are expected the next two days.
The legionnaires are part of France's 4,000-man Rapid Action Force. Most of that contingent is due to arrive Sunday at the vast, new industrial complex in Yanbu.
When the deployment is complete, there will be 2,300 legionnaires in their distinctive dark green berets in Saudi Arabia among the growing U.S.-led multinational force confronting Iraq.
France, which has 14 warships in the region and is sending three squadrons of combat jets, will have a force of about 13,000 men in the gulf region when the deployment is completed.
French Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement has said the French force will be autonomous and not under U.S. command.
"Heat is our first enemy," said Capt. Renard, the officer in charge of the first company of the 2nd Foreign Legion infantry regiment based in Nimes, France.
Aside from the legionnaires, the ferry carried about 750 other troops - 150 from the 21st Regiment of Marine Infantry from Frejus and about 500 from logistics and medical units.
Its hold was full of trucks carting everything from kitchens to generators and ammunition.
The ground forces will to head overland for northeastern Saudi Arabia, a three-day trip. They will take up positions among the other foreign troops in the Legion's largest overseas deployment since Algeria's 1954-62 independence war.
The position will be about 60 miles from the nearest Iraqi troops across the border in occupied Kuwait. About 150 troops of the Rapid Action Force who arrived Monday are already in place.
Gen. Michel Roquejeoffre, the overall French commander and a paratrooper, greeted Col. Gilbert LeGuen, commander of the logistics unit.
Most of the legionnaires maintained a stony silence, following orders, as they marched single-file along the quay.
Their first stay will be in a warehouse larger than a football field to regroup for the trip across the desert.
Their commanding officer said it has been a half-century since the Legion gave refuge to any person off the street.
"We take who we like, not just anybody. The days of anybody are over," said Renard, a 10-year veteran of the force.
The Legion is made up of some 90 nationalities and occasionally British-clipped English could be heard from the ranks.
The legionnaires themselves would not say where they were originally from, although about half are French.
"Once you join the legion, you're just a legionnaire," said an officer who ordered all his men to speak French while reporters were around.