U.N. chief says Europe will provide half of peacekeeping force in Lebanon

Friday, August 25th 2006, 6:03 am
By: News On 6

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ 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 has ``firm commitments'' from Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, and was consulting with Turkey about joining the peacekeeping force. Israel has expressed concern, however, about contingents from Muslim countries with which it does not have relations.

``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 Hezbollah and Israel. France, in particular, had held back from promising a large contribution and demanded a clearer definition of the mission and the rules of engagement.

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.''

He 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.

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.''

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 embargo, despite a U.N. brokered 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.

Annan said he asked France to lead the force until February 2007.

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 U.N. peacekeepers already in the south.

The peacekeepers are to 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.

``It is generally accepted that the disarmament of Hezbollah cannot be done by force,'' Annan said. ``The troops are not going there to disarm Hezbollah, let's be clear on that.''

A month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah _ which claimed hundreds of lives and caused significant damage, especially in Lebanon _ ended 12 days ago with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.