Associated France Press (AFP) 25/8/2006
France bolsters UN force in Lebanon, offers to take lead
by Marc Burleigh
PARIS (AFP) - France announced it was committing 1,600 more troops to a UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, while both Paris and Rome offered to take charge of the risky operation.
"I have decided to send two extra battalions into the field to expand our UNIFIL contingent. Two thousand French soldiers will thus be placed under the UN flag in Lebanon," Chirac said in a televised address.
Each French battalion counts 800 soldiers. Four hundred French soldiers are already deployed in Lebanon.
The decision was hailed by Israel, US President George W. Bush, and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who has already pledged to contribute troops to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
"I applaud the decision of France, as well as the significant pledges from Italy and our other important allies. I encourage other nations to make contributions as well," Bush said in a statement released by the White House.
Both France and Italy have offered to command UNIFIL, which faces the daunting task of policing a tenuous ceasefire between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.
Prodi "reconfirmed Italy's availability to take over the command of UNIFIL if the United Nations and the international community ask it to," a statement by his office said.
Chirac, speaking later Thursday, said: "France is prepared, if the UN wishes, to continue to assume command of the force."
But Washington seemed to signal its support for keeping France at the head of UNIFIL, with Bush saying he welcomed "President Chirac's decision... to continue to exercise leadership on the ground in enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701."
France came under rife criticism last week after it said that just 200 extra soldiers would join UNIFIL, which was set up 28 years ago as a toothless observer force but was revamped in an August 11 UN resolution into a more robust force of 15,000 soldiers, at least in theory.
At the request of Britain, Israel, Lebanon and the United States, Italy stepped forward and offered to lead the force, pledging a reported 3,000 soldiers.
EU foreign ministers will meet in Brussels Friday with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to say whether other members of the 25-nation bloc will also commit troops.
Spain was prepared to commit a battalion of between 700 and 800 troops to the UN force, military sources were quoted as saying by a news report late Thursday.
Greece, Finland, Latvia, Sweden and Poland have also indicated they could send soldiers, prompting European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso to say Thursday he was "confident that Europe will provide the necessary support to expand the UNIFIL."
Deployment plans were complicated however, with threats by Syria to close its border in the event of such a move by the UN.
Following talks in Helsinki with Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem, Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said: "They will close the frontier to all traffic" if UN troops were posted on the Lebanese side.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had already warned that such a deployment would represent a "hostile" position with regard to his country.
Meanwhile, Damascus decided to cut power supplies to Lebanon, which has endured strict rationing since Israel launched an assault on July 12, destroying Lebanese power stations, official media said Thursday.
Syrian authorities who had been providing the emergency supplies informed the Lebanese electricity company EDL "that it cannot ensure supplies anymore," a statement carried by the ANI state news agency said.
Terms of the August 14 truce between Israel and Hezbollah fighters were laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 1701, under which Lebanon was "to secure its borders and other entry points to prevent the entry in Lebanon without its consent of arms".
Lebanese troops have since deployed along the Syrian border in the north and east of the country, military sources said.
A reinforced UNIFIL could help intercept arms shipments to Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group that captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12, sparking a massive riposte and 34 days of heavy fighting.
Washington and Israel accuse Syria of being a transit point for shipments of arms and other supplies from Iran to Hezbollah, but Tehran and Damascus deny the claim.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora reiterated Thursday that his country had no aggressive intent toward Syria, after taking issue with Assad one day earlier and stressing that Lebanon would preserve its sovereignty and independence.
Relations between Beirut and Damascus have faltered since the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in April 2005 following the murder of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri and the coming to power of an anti-Syrian majority in parliament.
In Brussels, the European Union struggled to determine which members would play which role in an enlarged UN force.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana "has spoken from the start about 4,000 European soldiers. That seems a good target, that will represent a very important presence in the international force," spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said.
However, it would be far fewer than the required 15,000 for the total force.
Prodi has insisted that before Italy's troops deploy a new Security Council resolution is needed to clearly define their role.
Countries are wary of being caught in renewed fighting between Hezbollah and Israel. While several EU states have begun mulling deployments, Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee was quoted saying New Delhi might pull its 775 soldiers out of UNIFIL once reinforcements arrived.
With concern also focussed on how peacekeepers could handle entrenched and well-armed Hezbollah guerillas, a Shiite deputy was quoted as saying the group would not break the ceasefire but could respond to violations by Israel.
"The resistance (Hezbollah) is committed to the cessation of hostilities until the complete ceasefire is achieved," Mohamed Raad told the newspaper Al-Balad.
In Jerusalem, Israel's army chief admitted for the first time to failures during the Lebanon war and called for the mistakes to be examined.
"Parallel with our success, during combat we observed failures in certain areas, notably in the areas of logistics, operations and command," Dan Halutz said in a letter to the army.
"We have to proceed to a meaningful examination of the successes and the errors. We have to extract professional lessons, as we are faced with more challenges ... This test concerns us all, from me down to the last soldier."