douste blazy and livni 2.
(photo credit: AP)
French Foreign Minister Phillippe Douste-Blazy hinted during a meeting in Paris with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Wednesday that France would increase the number of troops it will send to the international force in Lebanon.
France originally discussed sending up to 3,500 troops and leading the force but significantly reduced the number and has so far sent 200 men to augment the 200 French troops already part of the UNIFIL force.
Douste-Blazy said that the international community should remember that France, which has come under criticism for dramatically changing its mind regarding its participation in the force, was the first country to have sent troops to strengthen the UNIFIL force already in place. He said France also has 1,700 marines on ships in the region.
According to Douste-Blazy, French President Jacques Chirac will determine within the next few days the number of troops France will contribute. An extraordinary meeting of the EU foreign ministers, to be attended by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, will be held in Brussels on Friday to discuss the force's rules of engagement and its composition.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, spoke Wednesday with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and said that, in order for the cease-fire to be maintained, it was important for UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to be implemented in its entirety. The resolution calls for the unconditional release of kidnapped IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.He also stressed the need for the international troops to arrive as soon as possible so that Israel could remove its air and sea blockade of Lebanon.
The phone call with Rice came on the same day that Lebanon's Prime Minister Fuad Saniora called a press conference and urged the US to help end Israel's blockade. Israel has said the blockade is designed to prevent the rearmament of Hizbullah, and will remain in place until international troops deploy along the Lebanese-Syrian border crossings and at the airport in Beirut.
"The United States can support us in putting real pressure on Israel to lift the siege," Saniora said, calling the blockage a violation of the cease-fire.
In a related development, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht arrived in Tel Aviv Wednesday night for talks with Defense Minister Amir Peretz about the rules of engagement that will be given to the force.
De Gucht met with Livni in Paris on Wednesday, and said that Belgium was considering sending a contribution to the force. Diplomatic officials put this number at between 70 to 100 soldiers, but Belgium state television reported Wednesday night that the Belgian government is considering dispatching 250 paratroopers. Belgium has a standing army of some 30,000 soldiers. Belgium, according to diplomatic sources, was very keen on nailing down the rules of engagement, and wanted to speak to both Jerusalem and Beirut about what the force would be allowed to do. Ten Belgian paratroopers were killed as part of a multinational force in Rwanda in the early 90s, and many Belgians blame this on a poor definition of the rules of engagement in place at the time.
Nevertheless, European officials said Belgium was interested in sending troops because it is a way of "putting Europe on the map in the Middle East, showing that when it comes to Middle East stability Europe is not all talk." In addition, there are traditional Belgian-Lebanese ties that stem from Lebanon being a French-speaking country.
In addition to meeting Douste-Blazy, Livni also met in Paris with French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Sarkozy, one of Chirac's main rivals.
Livni will hold talks in Rome on Thursday with Italian leaders to discuss their participation in the force. France may have been spurred on to consider a significant increase in its contribution to the force by Italy's offer on Monday to take command of the force. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has indicated Italy would be prepared to send up to 3,000 troops, but has not made a commitment to a specific number.
According to the proposed rules of engagement for the force, which were circulated to potential troop-contributing donors last week, the UN force would allow troops to open fire in self-defense, protect civilians and back up the Lebanese army in preventing foreign forces or arms from crossing the border.
While remaining "predominantly defensive in nature," the draft rules allow for the use of "deadly force" and offensive action, if necessary, to ensure implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
Although there is no authorization in the Security Council mandate or the rules of engagement to disarm Hizbullah, the rules are sufficiently robust to put the UN potentially in conflict with armed groups violating the cease-fire or the arms embargo - including Hizbullah. The rules would also give the UN commander on the ground wide-ranging authority to react.
The Security Council Resolution calls for 15,000 UN troops and another 15,000 Lebanese army troops to deploy to southern Lebanon, as the IDF withdraws. The UN force is also authorized to help the Lebanese army establish a buffer zone in the south and secure its borders to prevent arms smuggling.
Europeans - haunted by casualties on peacekeeping missions from Bosnia to Rwanda and Lebanon itself in the 1980s - are wary of committing troops without guarantees they will not get sucked into a poorly prepared and meekly mandated operation before they make firm commitments.
The rules of engagement would also authorize lethal force to "protect civilians under imminent threat of violence, when competent local authorities are unavailable or unable to render immediate assistance." Force could also be used "to ensure the security and freedom of movement of UN personnel and humanitarian workers."
AP contributed to this report.