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Mideast peacekeeping force still taking shape

Countries around the world were scrambling Tuesday to put together a fortified U.N. peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon as Israeli forces began a pullout from the volatile region.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The international community was scrambling Tuesday to put together a fortified U.N. peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon as Israeli forces began a pullout from the volatile region.

The United Nations has not received any formal offers of troops for the U.N. force, known as UNIFIL, although France, Italy, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have indicated they will make significant contributions. A dozen other countries have also expressed a willingness to help.

“We would like to get firm commitments of troops as soon as possible,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

France is expected to lead the enhanced force, which is to grow from the current 2,000 troops to 15,000 troops. An estimated 15,000 Lebanese troops are to join the strengthened U.N. force, which is to move south of the Litani River, about 18 miles from the Israeli border.

U.N. officials and diplomats said France has not yet made any announcement of how many troops it plans to send, and this was holding up announcements of troop commitments from other countries.

“It’s a chicken and egg situation, as it often is in our efforts to generate a force,” Dujarric said. “We’re dependent on the member states to come up with firm offers. ... We’re in intensive discussions with them, and hopefully we’ll flush out and get some firm commitments.”

France is demanding a more specific mandate for the force, including when it may use firepower.

The resolution authorizes the force to use “all necessary action” to ensure the movement of aid workers and protect civilians in imminent danger, among other situations. But the Security Council said UNIFIL’s mandate could be “enhanced” in a later resolution.

Decisions may come Thursday
U.N. officials said they were hopeful the first announcements of new troops will be made at a formal meeting expected to take place Thursday.

The region needs a robust force fast. A fragile U.N. cease-fire went into effect Monday, ending more than a month of fighting. On Tuesday, Israeli forces began slowly pulling out from southern Lebanon and made plans to hand over territory.

The existing UNIFIL force of 2,000 now faces the daunting task of coordinating the Israeli pullout and Lebanese troops’ arrival.

Lebanese troops could start moving into the region Wednesday, Israeli military officials and Lebanon’s communications minister have said.

But many questions remain about southern Lebanon’s ravaged infrastructure and the ability of its army to keep the peace between Hezbollah and Israel. France has sent military engineers to evaluate roads and what the Lebanese army needs to deploy in the troubled south, a spokesman for the French general staff said Tuesday.

The general leading the UNIFIL force, which has been in the region since 1978 and watched helplessly as fighting raged over the past month, said Monday he wants rapid reinforcements before the cease-fire unravels.

Turkey has said it would send soldiers, but not how many. It wants details on where the force would be deployed and under what conditions they could open fire.

Countries mull participation
The United States and European Union hope the force includes Turkey, which is the only Muslim member of NATO and has good relations with Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Largely Muslim Malaysia has said it could send between 850 and 1,000 troops, and is dispatching its foreign minister to Lebanon this week with counterparts from Pakistan and Qatar for talks on implementing the U.N. resolution.

Italy could send up to 3,000 troops, Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema said Tuesday, but added that the exact number will be worked out with other countries contributing to the mission.

Domestic politics and summer legislative recess appeared to be holding up some countries’ decisions.

Spain’s government is talking to opposition parties about sending 700-800 troops and most parties sound supportive — but any decision needs approval by parliament, not expected before the end of the month.

Norway has said it could send 100 marines and four missile torpedo boats to patrol the coast. Denmark says it cannot send ground troops but could offer a navy ship. Finland reportedly could send 100-200 troops.

Ireland, New Zealand and Indonesia have also said they could contribute.

The current force includes troops from France, China, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Poland and Ukraine.