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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has asked Italy to lead the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon to enforce a fragile ceasefire, which is entering its second week.
The UN peacekeeping mission will be stepped up to some 15,000 troops
Olmert made the request in a telephone conversation Sunday with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, according to a statement released by the Israeli prime minister's office.
"It is important that Italy should lead the international force and send troops to also oversee the Lebanon-Syria border crossings," the statement said, adding that Italy's contribution is "vital to the implementation of (UN) Security Council Resolution 1701 and it will be an important contribution to peace and stability in the Middle East."
Italy is expected to send between 2,500 and 3,000 troops, the Italian daily La Repubblica reported on Monday.
UN Resolution 1701 has expanded the mandate of the force, demanding an end to hostilities between Israel and the Hezbollah militia and calls for Hezbollah to disarm and stop its weapon imports. It calls for Israeli troops to withdraw from southern Lebanon in tandem with the deployment of the Lebanese army and a strengthened UN force of 15,000 troops.
French peacekeepers are arriving in Lebanon, just not as many as hoped
It had been thought that France would lead an international contingent given its historical ties to the region, but Paris last week backed off from taking on a leadership role, saying it would only commit 400 soldiers to the UN force, known as UNIFIL. The 15,000 UN soldiers would be deployed alongside a Lebanese contingent of similar size.
Prodi's office on Sunday told Reuters that the Italian prime minister had discussed the force in separate telephone conversations with Olmert and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
On Friday, Italian Defense Minister Arturo Parisi said in a written statement that "eventually our country could assume the responsibility of leading the operation."
Last week, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nepal offered to contribute thousands of soldiers to the peacekeeping force. The UN said late last week that it wants to deploy about 3,500 soldiers within two weeks and step that up until the goal of 15,000 is reached.
On Monday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier reiterated that Berlin will send no combat troops to Lebanon but added that he was hopeful of a "robust" mandate for its proposed naval contingent.
German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung has been vague about details of a proposed naval deployment, but has said that sailors should be able to defend themselves.
"It is not enough for them to have a pure observer status," he said in an interview on German public television.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the international community to increase its diplomatic efforts to reach a solution to the Middle East conflict.
"At the moment, there is too much discussion about the military component and too little talk about the long-term political process," she said at a press conference in Berlin on Monday, saying it was necessary to "get at the root" of the problem.
She said Germany's role, besides its participation in a peacekeeping force, would be "above all to advance the political process along with our European partners."
Second week of truce
The fragile truce ending 34 days of war in Lebanon entered its second week on Monday with both sides accusing the other of violating the ceasefire accord.
Israeli armored vehicles as they returned from southern Lebanon in northern Israel Sunday
Lebanon warned on Sunday it would punish any group which violated the truce, in an implicit warning to Hezbollah, as Israel vowed it was preparing for the "next round" against the Shiite guerrillas.
In an apparent bid to assure the international community of Beirut's commitment to the ceasefire, Defense Minister Elias Murr warned that anyone who breached the deal would face trial for treason.
"Any violation ... any rocket that would give Israel a justification (to hit Lebanon) will be treated harshly," Murr said. "It will be considered as direct collaboration with the Israeli enemy."
Despite sharp criticism over a commando raid in Lebanon which UN chief Kofi Annan said was a violation of the truce, Israel insisted it would not hesitate to act to prevent alleged cross-border arms smuggling to Hezbollah from Syria.
The raid against Hezbollah in eastern Lebanon, which saw one Israeli soldier killed in subsequent clashes, drew an angry response from Lebanon and a warning it could stop its troop deployment in the south.
Annan said he was "deeply concerned about a violation by the Israeli side" of the ceasefire deal outlined in Security Council Resolution 1701 and called on all sides to respect an arms embargo, exercise maximum restraint and avoid "provocative actions."
The truce took effect last Monday to end the deadliest cross-border fighting in a quarter century that claimed close to 1,300 lives in Lebanon and killed 161 Israelis.The government of Beirut has said that conflict has cost Lebanon's economy $6 billion to $7 billion (4.7 billion to 5.5 billion euros), while the Israeli government has estimated the fighting has cost its economy $1.6 billion (1.2 billion euros).