U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday that Europe had agreed to provide the “backbone” of a peacekeeping force for Lebanon, providing nearly half of a 15,000-member contingent.
European officials said it would take up to three months to get all the troops on the ground.
Speaking after an emergency meeting of European foreign ministers, Annan also said he has “firm commitments” from Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, and was consulting with Turkey about joining the peacekeeping force.
Israel has said it would oppose the deployment of troops from Muslim nations with which it does not have diplomatic ties, saying their inclusion would make it impossible for Israel to share vital intelligence information with the U.N. force.
“Europe is providing the backbone of the force,” Annan said. “We can now begin to put together a credible force.”
By pledging 6,900 troops, European countries overcame initial concern about being caught in the middle between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah, which agreed Aug. 14 to lay down arms under a U.N. brokered cease-fire after 34 days of fighting that claimed hundreds of lives and caused significant damage, especially in Lebanon.
France, in particular, had held back from promising a large contribution and demanded a clearer definition of the mission and the rules of engagement.
Annan said he asked France — which dramatically increased its pledged contribution to 2,000 troops late Thursday — to lead the 15,000-member mission until February 2007.
France asks for arms-free zone
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Annan gave guarantees for the safety of European troops and on rules of engagement, and that France wanted an arms-free “exclusion zone” in south Lebanon.
“We think the best solution for disarming Hezbollah is to make an exclusion zone with the retreat of the Israeli army on one side and the deployment of the Lebanese army on the other, reinforced by the U.N. troops,” he said.
“Our objective is clear, to disarm Hezbollah,” Douste-Blazy said, but added that military force was not the answer. “The only solution is to have a political solution.”
Annan said Hezbollah could not be disarmed by force.
“The troops are not going there to disarm Hezbollah, let’s be clear on that,” he said.
Douste-Blazy said he hoped all five permanent U.N. Security Council members — the United States, China, Britain and Russia, in addition to France — will send troops to participate in the force.
“The Europeans should not be the only ones. We hope particularly that the permanent members of the Security Council will participate, as well as Muslim countries,” he said.
The United States has explicitly ruled out participation in the peacekeeping force. The U.S. often provides logistics for U.N. peacekeeping forces — which it is expected to do in Lebanon — but as a rule it does not provide troops unless it is commanding the force.
Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said the entire U.N. force should be in place within two to three months. Annan said he hoped the force would be able to start deploying in “days, not weeks.”
Blockade linked to U.N. force
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, called on Israel to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon. Ending the blockade has been linked to forming a U.N. force.
Israel said it would lift the blockade after the Lebanese army and the bolstered international force take control of the country’s ports and borders to prevent Hezbollah guerrillas from importing new arms.
“The minute they are there, we will be able to lift it,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. The statement left unclear at what point Israel would consider there would be enough troops on the ground to lift the blockade.
Israel is maintaining the blockade, despite the cease-fire, to prevent Hezbollah from rearming with the help of its Syrian and Iranian patrons. Regev said preventing the guerrillas from importing new weapons was a key element of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which called for the cease-fire.
Regev declined to comment on Annan’s statement about the participation of Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh in the peacekeeping force.
In New York, a U.N. official said the world body is expected to hold another formal meeting Monday for countries that have expressed interest in contributing troops to the peacekeeping force. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because there has been no official announcement.
More French troops arrive
About 150 French soldiers — an engineering team — landed Friday at Naqoura in southern Lebanon. They joined 250 of their countrymen already in Lebanon, and raised to 2,200 the number of peacekeepers already in the south.
Those UNIFIL troops, in place since the 1970s, have been widely considered ineffectual and have been dogged by a vague mandate.
Ambiguities remain in the recent U.N. resolution, but it does considerably clarify the rules of engagement, authorizing the expanded U.N. force to “to take all necessary action” to prevent hostile activities wherever peacekeepers are stationed.
The peacekeepers will help 15,000 Lebanese troops extend their authority into southern Lebanon, which has been controlled by Hezbollah guerrillas, as Israel withdraws its soldiers after a monthlong attack.
Annan said that the U.N. force would be able to deploy along the Lebanese-Syrian border to help prevent weapons shipments to Hezbollah, but only if the Lebanese government asked for such help. Lebanon, to date, has neither asked for this nor ruled it out — but Syrian President Bashar Assad has strongly objected.