Europeans pledge more troops to UNIFIL force

Questions remain over blocking arms for Hizbullah from crossing Lebanese border.

france unifil 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
france unifil 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is scheduled to travel to Germany Sunday to talk about the enhanced UNIFIL force, two days after European foreign ministers pledged a potent army to provide "the backbone" of the force. The commitment of up to 6,900 more European troops relieves concerns about many countries' reluctance to send soldiers into the Middle East without clear instructions or authorization on how to use their weapons. About 150 French soldiers - an engineering team - landed Friday at Nakoura in southern Lebanon, joining 250 of their countrymen already in the country, and Italy's leader reportedly said late Friday that his nation's troops could leave for Lebanon as early as Tuesday. Despite the commitment to send troops, however, it was still unclear whether they would help the Lebanese army control the border crossings to Syria to prevent the rearmament of Hizbullah. The issue of enforcing the arms embargo is expected to be raised during Livni's talks in Germany, including discussions with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. While Israel has lowered expectations that the international force together with the Lebanese army will physically disarm Hizbullah, it continues to demand that the arms embargo be enforced, and has said it will lift its own air and sea blockade of Lebanon only after international troops are present at entry points into Lebanon. A Syrian cabinet minister on Friday repeated, however, his government's opposition to international troops near Lebanon's border with Syria. The minister of expatriates, Buthayna Shabaan, said the UN cease-fire resolution does not provide for "spreading international troops along the Lebanese border with Syria" and that such a move would be "absolutely not possible." Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday called Israel's demand a "hostile" move aimed at damaging relations between Lebanon and Syria. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday that UNIFIL would deploy on the Syrian frontier only on Lebanon's request, which Beirut has not made. "The resolution does not require the deployment of UN troops to the border," he told a news conference at the end of a three-hour meeting with the 25 European ministers. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the cease-fire resolution "calls on Lebanese forces and international forces [to be] on different crossings to prevent illicit arms. The minute those forces are there, we can lift [the air and sea blockade]." Israel could use air strikes to target border posts, roads and bridges to prevent arms smuggling if Lebanese troops and UNIFIL do not commit to stop the shipments themselves. The IAF and navy could also maintain the blockade to apply further pressure on Lebanon to police the border. In addition to the question of enforcing the arms embargo, the issue of dismantling Hizbullah's rockets and firepower in southern Lebanon remained a sore point. "Our objective is clear: to disarm Hizbullah," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said. But he added that military force was not the answer, saying: "The only solution is to have a political solution." Senior Israeli officials have told their European counterparts in recent days that although they don't expect the international force and the Lebanese army to strip Hizbullah of every rifle and grenade, they do expect that Hizbullah would not retain offensive missile capabilities south of the Litani. Annan said on Friday, however, that it was not the UN's task to strip Hizbullah of its weapons. "The troops are not going there to disarm Hizbullah. Let's be clear about that," he said. The disarmament issue is one for Lebanon to deal with, and "cannot be done by force." Following Friday's EU meeting, it became clear that the bulk of the new troops would come from Italy and France. Other countries committed smaller units. Belgium volunteered 400 soldiers, including critical demining units. Germany and Denmark offered naval forces, and Finland spoke of sending 250 soldiers if its parliament approves. France, which now commands the small UNIFIL force, will lead the expanded force until February, when it will hand over the command to Italy. "Europe is providing the backbone of the force," Annan said. "We can now begin to put together a credible force." He said the peacekeeping force will be "strong, credible and robust." Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said the entire UN 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." He had earlier set a target date of September 2. Annan told the foreign ministers that the cease-fire was holding with few infractions, but he urged them to move swiftly in dispatching their soldiers to the volatile region. Lebanon, meanwhile, welcomed Europe's decision to accept "effective participation" in the force on Friday, saying the move would help the government reassert its authority in south Lebanon and restore stability to the country. "The EU's decision to heavily participate... will buttress Lebanon's efforts to impose its authority in south Lebanon, consolidate stability and support the implementation of Resolution 1701," a Lebanese government official close to Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said late Friday. A Hizbullah official refused to comment on the EU's decision to participate heavily in the international force, saying his organization would "study carefully" a proposal for a UN weapons exclusion zone. Douste-Blazy said during the Brussels meeting that "the best solution for disarming Hizbullah 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 UN troops." Annan briefed Saniora by telephone late Friday on the results of the Brussels meeting, telling him that the EU ministers had accepted his demand for issuing a statement calling for the immediate lifting of the Israeli sea and air blockade on Lebanon, according to a statement issued by Saniora's office. Saniora also received a phone call from French President Jacques Chirac, who affirmed his country's support for Lebanon's stability and extension of state authority in south Lebanon. Chirac also assured Saniora that he was strongly working to have Israel's blockade lifted, the statement said.