A nine-day-old truce in Lebanon appeared increasingly shaky on Tuesday as the struggle to find European countries willing to commit forces to keep the peace between Israel and Hezbollah continued.
Italy, not France, could make up the bulk of Europe's contribution to the peacekeepers
Despite intense negotiations since the truce came into effect on Aug. 14 and warnings that it could unravel if more peacekeepers fail to deploy quickly, few European countries have made firm commitments.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has said his country is willing to lead the force and offered some 3,000 troops, but he insisted a new UN Security Council resolution was needed to clearly define the role of the peacekeepers.
The Italian prime minister also said a final decision on which country would lead an expanded UN force would be made by Kofi Annan within the next few days after analysis and consultations with the leaders of the countries that are interested in joining the mission.
"Renewed commitment" expected from Israel
Israel warned an attack in Lebanon on Sunday may not be its last, despite the ceasefire
Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema for his part was quoted as saying that Italy will commit troops to Lebanon only if Israel respects the ceasefire in force.
"From Israel, we expect a renewed commitment ... to respect the ceasefire," D'Alema told the La Repubblica newspaper. "It is right to demand that Hezbollah gives up its weapons, but we cannot send our soldiers to Lebanon while the Israeli armed forces keep shooting."
France, Lebanon's former colonial power, had been expected to lead the force but has so far offered only 200 additional troops to beef up the existing 2,000-strong UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
D'Alema said he hoped France might reconsider its offer of only 400 troops. It had originally been expected to contribute at least 2,000.
"In the end I think that even the French will be present in a more hefty fashion," he said. "Even if France does not reconsider it, we will go ahead anyway."
Italian-led force meets with approval
Merkel called the current Mideast peace "extremely fragile"
The Lebanese government, including its two Hezbollah ministers, said it would be prepared to accept a force under Italian command. Other countries, including Germany, Great Britain and the United States, have also signaled their approval.
Germany has offered to send part of its navy to patrol the coast, but Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday that she could not imagine sending ground troops to the region.
EU countries are due to meet in Brussels on Wednesday to clarify EU commitments and voice concerns regarding the ambiguity of the force's rules of engagement.
The UNIFIL force is expected to swell to a troop strength of 15,000 in the weeks after a vanguard force of 3,500 has been deployed. The troops will serve to bolster 15,000 Lebanese soldiers that have been deploying in southern Lebanon to act as a buffer between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
Fears of renewed violence remain
Many are concerned about more destruction if the ceasefire does not hold
A strong European contingent is considered vital if the United Nations is to get an advance party of 3,500 troops on the ground by Sept. 2.
Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nepal are among the few countries with firm commitments of ground troops but Israel has said it will oppose the deployment of any soldiers from nations without diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Potential European contributors are believed to fear being drawn into renewed fighting between Hezbollah and Israeli forces currently withdrawing from southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has not promised to leave southern Lebanon or remove its weapons in place there.
Skirmishes between the two sides in the last several days have underscored the fragility of the ceasefire but UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said the situation was "extremely fragile and extremely complicated and extremely dangerous," but added that he was optimistic the peace would hold.
Nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed during the violence that erupted after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.