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Europe Sends Mixed Signals on UN Force in Lebanon

DW staff (sp)August 19, 2006

Even as the first French soldiers arrived in Lebanon Saturday, concrete pledges by European nations to a UN peacekeeping force fall far short of the appeal for 3,500 troops by the end of August.

French navy commandos arrive in southern LebanonImage: AP

About 50 French soldiers arrived by sea Saturday in the southern Lebanese coastal town of Naqura, the first troops to reinforce UN peacekeepers amid calls for France and other European nations to step up their contributions.

The 28-year-old United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is seeking to add 3,500 troops to its existing 2,000-strong contingent within 10 days as Israel pulls back from areas it occupied in its devastating month-long offensive. On Saturday, the shaky truce suffered a blow when helicopter-borne Israeli commandos raided a Hezbollah bastion, allegedly aimed to disrupt weapons supplies to Hezbollah from Syria and Iran.

Libanon Flugzeug mit Hilfslieferungen in Beirut gelandet
Boxes of humanitarian aid arrive in LebanonImage: AP

French navy commandos were the first to disembark from the force-projection and command ship Mistral anchored off Naqura, which is about three kilometers (two miles) from the Israeli border.

France's reinforcements arrived under a United Nations resolution that ended a 34-day war between Israel and the Shiite Hezbollah militia which killed 1,150 people, mostly civilians, in Lebanon. Hezbollah killed 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

"Important that Europe steps forward"

France's contribution however has fallen far short of the major commanding role that many had foreseen for the former colonial power in Lebanon.

The United Nations has been urging European countries to provide troops to the peacekeeping force, as the Beirut government moved ahead with the deployment of the Lebanese army in the south of the country.

On Saturday French President Jacques Chirac held talks with several EU leaders stressing the need to swiftly agree the make-up and mandate of a peacekeeping force in Lebanon, his office said.

The French leader spoke by phone to Italy's Prime Minister
Romano Prodi, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and Finish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, whose country holds the EU presidency, it said. All three countries have agreed in principle to send soldiers but want more details on the precise mandate of the force charged with policing a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah.

Chirac highlighted "the need to very quickly specify the
missions, the rules of engagement and the chain of command" of the UN interim force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), it said. He also insisted on the need for balance in the distribution of contingents "which must reflect the commitment of all the international community and, in particular European countries", it added.

Frankreich Präsident Jacques Chirac
Chirac has urged European countries to act swiftlyImage: AP

Earlier, UN Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown too pleaded with European nations to pitch in.

"The particular appeal I want to make today is that Europe comes forward with troops for this first wave," Malloch Brown told journalists. "It's very important that Europe now steps forward."

UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which governs the

ceasefire, calls for Israeli troops to withdraw from south Lebanon in tandem with deployment of Lebanese troops and a beefed-up UN peacekeeping force in the area.

Italy, Finland considering troops

The UN also issued a detailed list Friday of its troop requirements for the vanguard force of 3,500, including eight mechanized infantry battalions, three light reconnaissance battalions, three engineering battalions and five observation helicopters.

A logistical battalion, a military hospital along with communications units and military policy will also be needed.

Israel Libanon Luftangriffe auf Libanon Trümmer
Reconstructing Beirut is likely to take timeImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Italy's government and both houses of parliament approved a motion Friday to contribute troops to the UN interim force which, under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, is to be expanded from its existing 1,990 members to 15,000.

Also on Friday, the Finnish government said it might send 250 troops, but that no firm decision would be taken until the end of the month. Denmark said it was ready to send three warships into the region.

Though the German government has ruled out sending any ground troops, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany could send a "maritime protection component" and provide logistics, air transport and reconnaissance, depending on the rules of engagement.

UN mandate too vague

One of the main reasons for the reluctance of European nations to contribute troops remains the vagueness of the UN peacekeeping force's mandate.

In Germany, where the idea of sending German soldiers for a deployment which might involve turning their guns on Israelis remains highly sensitive, politicians say the UN mandate remains too ambiguous.

"What we're missing is a plan of operation," said Gert Weisskirchen, foreign policy expert of the Social Democratic Party. "The rules of engagement are not clear and the UN has to finally decide on that."

Angela Merkel und Frank-Walter Steinmeier zu Libanon
Steinmeier with Chancellor MerkelImage: AP

Even German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called for clarification.

"We don't know whether the German navy for instance will have the right to enter aboard suspicious vessels," Steinmeier said. "I hope that we manage to make decisive progress over the weekend."

German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung called on the United Nations to give the troops deployed in Lebanon an "unequivocal mandate" for the use of force.

In an interview to be published on Monday, Jung said the German Navy would have to be able to use armed force to prevent the transport of arms to Hezbollah. Such use of force would require a UN mandate, and that the matter would have to be cleared up before Germany could commit its
troops, Jung told the German magazine Focus.

"We are not about to send ships to the Lebanese coast just to observe," he said. "Our soldiers must have a mandate to prevent the smuggling of weapons and guarantee a lasting ceasefire."