3,500 soldiers committed to UN force

France only plans to send 400 troops, Germany to assist in naval patrols.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The United Nations got pledges of 3,500 troops for an expanded UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, but it was unclear whether the soldiers represented the right mix of countries and units and could deploy very quickly. Bangladesh made the largest offer of up to 2,000 troops, but France, who was expected to be the dominant contingent, offered just 200 new troops, in addition to the 200 already sent. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown told a meeting of nearly 50 potential troop contributing countries that at least 3,500 new troops are needed in south Lebanon within 10 days to expand the 2,000-strong UN force trying to help maintain an uneasy truce between Israel and Hezbollah operatives. In his opening speech to the meeting, Malloch Brown warned that "every moment we delay is a moment of risk that the fighting could re-erupt." Israeli diplomatic officials expressed disappointment on Thursday with the international community's failure to come up with enough troops to fill the 15,000-member international force in Lebanon and ensure the force would compel Hizbullah to disarm. "The building of the force, setting its mandate and defining its standard operational procedure are in the making," one official said. "There are ups and downs." US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the force would not be responsible for disarming Hizbullah. That would be the responsibility of the Lebanese, Rice said in an interview with USA Today. She said that in the past, the Lebanese government had been unwilling or unable to disarm Hizbullah. "I don't think there is an expectation that this force is going to physically disarm Hizbullah," Rice said. "I think it's a little bit of a misreading about how you disarm a militia. You have to have a plan, first of all, for the disarmament of the militia, and then the hope is that some people lay down their arms voluntarily." Rice said if Hizbullah resisted international demands to disarm, "one would have to assume that there will be others who are willing to call Hizbullah what we are willing to call it, which is a terrorist organization." French President Jacques Chirac said Thursday that France will immediately double its contingent in the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to 400 troops, responding to the "urgent needs" of the Lebanese army as it deploys. The statement from the president's office came after Chirac spoke by phone with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and appeared to leave open the possibility that France could alter its deployment again later. Questions about the size of France's contribution were raised this week when Le Monde reported that Paris planned to send in a small, purely symbolic force, and that UN officials were scrambling to convince the French that sending so few troops would be devastating. France currently leads the UNIFIL force with a contingent of about 200 troops, and many are keeping close watch on Paris' decision-making on its role in a strengthened force. Chirac told Annan that "to respond to the urgent needs of the deployment of the Lebanese army," France "will immediately double its current contribution by sending about 200 men," the statement said. He did not specify what those needs were or indicate whether the extra deployment would last long-term. Col. Philippe Tanguy, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said the deployment "does not commit France in any way" in its long-term involvement to the peacekeeping force. "This is a question of pragmatism and not drawing hasty conclusions by saying: 'Ah, France has decided to send 200 more men and that will be all,'" Tanguy said. Any final decision would be up to Chirac, he added. Chirac told Annan that France was ready to lead the strengthened force, which is expected to work with about 15,000 Lebanese troops to stabilize southern Lebanon after more than a month of violence between the IDF and Hizbullah. The plan was to be presented at a UN meeting in New York later Thursday to flesh out which countries will participate in the force as it grows from the current 2,000 troops to 15,000, Chirac's office said. France also is prepared to keep 1,700 troops mobilized in the region who in recent weeks evacuated French and other foreign nationals from Lebanon and sent in humanitarian aid from aircraft based on French warships off the Lebanese coast. The 200 new troops were likely to move into Lebanon "in the next several days," Tanguy said. France and Italy - another potential European contributor - have said the peacekeeping mandate is not explicit enough, and demanded that the UN set clear rules of engagement for troops bolstering the force. The two countries had said they wanted more details before formally committing soldiers. Italy has said it could quickly send as many as 3,000 soldiers - up from its current contribution of about 50 - but Premier Romano Prodi's office said Thursday that he was pushing for explicit ground rules. In a telephone conversation with Annan late Wednesday, Prodi called for "a clear mandate, without any ambiguity and with very precise rules of engagement, for the soldiers who will be deployed," his office said. Chirac, speaking with Annan, echoed repeated demands from French officials that the UN clarify "the mission, the rules of engagement and the resources" of the boosted UN force. He also said the choice of contingents should reflect "the commitment of all the international community." Brunei, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia and Turkey are among other countries that said they could commit troops to the expanded UNIFIL. According to a UN Security Council diplomat, the first wave of reinforcements - probably in the range of 4,000-5,000 troops - was likely to come from Spain, Italy, France and possibly Turkey. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that Germany would not send combat troops as part of the contemplated international peacekeeping force, but may offer naval forces to help patrol the Lebanese coastline. German and Israeli officials have expressed concern for historical reasons about a situation that could lead to any confrontation between Israeli and German troops, such as having soldiers of the Bundeswehr or army patrol near the Lebanese-Israeli border. France had been widely expected to increase its contribution to UNIFIL after the UN Security Council approved a resolution - drafted by France and the US - last Friday. UN diplomats and officials had said that France's reticence to specify its contribution had held up announcements of troop commitments from other countries. French officials are particularly concerned about how the expanded force is expected to interact with Hizbullah, officials said. At UN headquarters, officials and diplomats said they believed that French Gen. Alain Pellegrini - the UNIFIL commander - carried out his mission well during the violence. The Lebanese army's deployment marked a first step toward extending government control in the Hizbullah stronghold that national troops have largely kept out of for four decades. Officials hope more UNIFIL forces can move in quickly to back up the soldiers. Britain's UN Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said he expects early agreement on the rules of engagement at the Thursday meeting in New York. Jones Parry called Thursday's meeting with dozens of potential donor countries "crucial," and said the pace of putting together the expanded force needs to accelerate. He said he hopes troops will be on the ground within two weeks. Hundreds of people died in the fighting between Israeli troops and Hizbullah fighters, and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee. Homes, buildings and roads have been obliterated.