New better-armed peacekeepers in Lebanon say first 'U.N. Centcom' will strengthen force

Friday, September 15th 2006, 8:45 am
By: News On 6

NAQOURA, Lebanon (AP) _ U.N. peacekeepers recall all too well when, faced with a hostile enemy, they had to answer to civilians to get approval to defend themselves or the local population _ at times with deadly results.

But troops deploying to expand a long-ineffective U.N. force in Lebanon are touting the creation of the world body's first military command center _ modeled partly on Centcom in the United States.

Along with the most powerful armor ever deployed by U.N. peacekeepers, the center gives new teeth to the 28-year UNIFIL force, which is set to grow from 2,000 to 15,000 troops to enforce a U.N.-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.

What some are calling ``UNIFIL 2'' will help cement the tenuous halt to fighting between Hezbollah and Israel in the 34-day war that began July 12. It is also expected to help Lebanon's army restore government control of the Hezbollah stronghold.

The U.N. force will now be backed by 13 Leclerc tanks, sophisticated Cobra radar systems and 155 mm artillery cannons wielded by French troops.

Hundreds of Spanish marines in amphibious military vehicles came ashore Friday in the southern port of Tyre, joining French and Italian troops _ although the deployment has hit logistical snags.

The force commander, French Gen. Alain Pellegrini, was quoted in the French daily La Croix as saying the Lebanese government had not done enough to help find areas where incoming troops could set up camp _ which has forced him to delay asking for more reinforcements.

On the ground, the troops have the mission of enforcing a ban on Hezbollah weapons in a zone on the border with Israel. They won't be hunting for hidden weapons, but even trying to prevent the guerrillas from bringing out their weapons or smuggling in more could be dangerous.

At this point, no one can say how dangerous it will be, and uncertainty is high over what the peacekeepers will face. The mission raises the possibility of violent friction with guerrillas _ and if there's a flare-up in Hezbollah-Israeli fighting, the peacekeepers will have to step in to impose calm. That means the need for quick, on-the-spot decisions on how much force to use.

To smooth out military communication, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has ordered the creation of the command center, which will allow Pellegrini to consult with military brass in New York who answer directly to the head of peacekeeping operations, Jean-Marie Guehenno.

U.N. officials say it will likely be headed by an Italian, with the second-in-command coming from France. France and Italy have the largest contingents in UNIFIL.

``With military-to-military communication, there is generally a greater degree of fidelity than with military-civilian communication,'' said a top U.N. peacekeeping department official by phone from New York, speaking on condition of anonymity because the command center is still in development.

``Such rapid response _ which is not typically a peacekeeping model _ is about making the troops more comfortable,'' he said.

Heavy military equipment and robust rules of engagement aren't new for U.N. forces: In Congo, the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping operation uses attack helicopters and leads military operations to rescue hostages.

``We are moving away from this culture of observation, and are transforming from peacekeeping to peace-making, or peace-enforcing,'' said Lt. Col Eric Carrey, a spokesman for the French forces in Lebanon. ``We are in a lessons-learned logic.''

Still, the U.N. force will have to be backed by the political will to strike back at either Hezbollah or Israeli forces if they violate cease-fire terms, experts say.

``It's not just the structures you have to look at,'' said former French Gen. Jean Salvan, a former UNIFIL commander who was part of the Lebanon force when it was created in 1978. ``The talk is very good, the organizations are superb, but what will the reality be on the ground?''

Israeli jets have repeatedly carried out overflights of Lebanese territory since the cease-fire took effect Aug. 14, while Hezbollah is believed to have hidden weapons.

Memories are still fresh of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre when Bosnian Serb forces overran U.N. peacekeepers protecting a Muslim enclave in the town and killed about 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

Though the British U.N. commander at the time requested intensive NATO airstrikes against Serbs, the Japanese diplomat in charge of U.N. Bosnia operations, Yasushi Akashi, refused to authorize them.

During the Hezbollah-Israel fighting in Lebanon, UNIFIL peacekeepers _ like many civilians _ scrambled to dodge flying bullets, missiles and mortars. Four peacekeepers were killed when an Israeli bomb leveled their post.

``Sometimes you feel a bit powerless,'' said Maj. Marc Reininger, a French officer who was deputy commander of security at UNIFIL's command post in Naquoura when the fighting flared. ``We hope this time it is going to change.''

By Saturday, Spain will have brought around 600 troops into south Lebanon, the first phase of a deployment eventually to total about 1,100 in the coming weeks.

Spain will be the third-largest contributor to the 15,000-member U.N. force, after France and Italy. The full Spanish contingent will be in place in October.

``We will be coming in wave after wave between now and tomorrow,'' said Lt. Col. Francisco Mujica, second in command for the amphibious force.

Landing craft unloaded tractors and armored vehicles onto the beach as local children swam in the waves nearby and looked on.

Peacekeepers from France and Spain are to move into the south in the next few days to reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping mission, joining Italians, Ghanaians and Indians already on the ground.

The Indonesian military, initially slated to send 1,000 peacekeepers to Lebanon at the end of this month, said Friday that it would postpone its deployment until late October.

``The government of Lebanon is so busy organizing (the peacekeepers) who are already there, there needed to be a readjustment of our arrival date,'' Indonesian military spokesman Admiral Mohamad Sunarto said.

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation and was quick to offer troops to any peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, but Israel initially objected because Jakarta does not have diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

The U.N. force, which will patrol a buffer zone in south Lebanon to prevent hostilities from breaking out again between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, is to reach close to 5,000 by the end of the week.

The 34-day war, which ended in a U.N.-brokered cease-fire on Aug. 14, killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Lebanese civilians.