Assad rejects forces on Syrian border

Says deployment would be 'hostile act'; urgent talks called over ME force.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Syrian President Bashar Assad rejected on Tuesday Israel's demands to deploy the international peacekeeping force in Lebanon along the Syrian border as well. Speaking to a Dubai-based television station, he warned that such a presence would "harm Lebanon's autonomy" and would be considered an act of hostility. The Syrian president also rejected talks with Israel over an agreed-upon border between the two States until Israel would relinquish the Shaba Farms on the Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese border. Still, he noted that the possibility for peace in the Middle East was still possible, although the window of opportunity could be closed within a few weeks or months. Meanwhile, it was announced on Tuesday that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan will attend an extraordinary meeting of European Union foreign ministers this week, as it seeks to advance tortuous efforts to pull together contributions for a Middle East peacekeeping force. The meeting was called for Friday at the request of Italy amid mounting international pressure on the Europeans to commit troops that can move quickly into south Lebanon to bolster the shaky cease-fire. Italy has conditionally agreed to lead the force and provide up to 3,000 of the estimated 15,000 troops needed for the mission, but like other European nations is insisting on safeguards that its soldiers won't be caught in a crossfire between Israel and Hezbollah. "The purpose of the meeting is to focus on EU member states' contributions to UNIFIL (the UN force in Lebanon) and the conditions needed to make the operation a success," said a statement from Finland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency. EU diplomats were already scheduled to meet Wednesday in an effort to coordinate positions on the force. Officials said that meeting was unlikely to produce a breakthrough and would focus on assessing the requirements of the peacekeeping mission. However there was some expectation that more nations would come forward with at least tentative offers of troops ahead of Friday's meeting. "It's not a decision-making meeting but more of a survey of the situation, with a certain urgency," Swedish Foreign Minister Jan Eliasson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. Annan, and US President George W. Bush have urged a speedy deployment of troops to shore up the shaky cease-fire. 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. Despite the offer to lead the mission, Italy has made clear its concerns. "From Israel, we expect a renewed commitment, and this time really binding, to respect the cease-fire," Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema was quoted as saying by the Rome daily La Repubblica. "It is right to insist that the Hezbollah put down their arms, but we cannot send our soldiers into Lebanon if the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) continues to shoot." Pressure on Europe has grown because Israel has rejected offers of participation from - Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia - Muslim nations which do not recognize the Jewish state. However, the Europeans demand a clear mandate from the UN mission that gives their soldiers the right to defend themselves without dragging them into the conflict. Hundreds of foreign troops were killed in previous efforts to pacify Lebanon, including 58 French paratroopers slain in a 1983 Hizbullah attack that also killed 241 Americans. France has disappointed other countries by offering only 200 extra troops, roughly doubling its contribution to the existing UN force in Lebanon, although officials have indicated it could offer more if the force is given a satisfactory mandate. Greece said Tuesday it will contribute naval forces, but not ground troops. Government spokesman Nikos Roussopoulos said Greece's contribution will include a frigate, a helicopter, landing craft, special forces and support staff. Its main purpose will be to inspect shipping to Lebanese ports. Diplomats say several other countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Norway, Poland, and Turkey have also indicated that they may contribute. Eliasson said Sweden has yet to decide if will join the force. "It is a big responsibility to send personnel to an area where there is uncertainty about the force's mission," he said. Adding that Sweden already has troops in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Africa, he said, "we are not talking about infinite resources here." According to the Paris daily Le Monde, a draft UN document would give peacekeepers the right to open fire to defend themselves and to protect civilians, but not actively search for Hezbollah weapons. The force would be authorized to prevent hostile activities in a buffer zone in southern Lebanon; to counter anyone who tries to prevent peacekeepers from carrying out their mandate; and to "protect civilians in immediate threat of physical violence," Le Monde said, citing the document. The newspaper said it obtained another working document that says the Lebanese army, working alongside the peacekeepers, must take control of the buffer zone and be responsible for disarming Hizbullah.