France to send 2,000 troops to UN force

Israel expresses satisfaction at the decision; Italy may send 3,000 soldiers.

chirac speaking 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
chirac speaking 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
France will send a total of 2,000 troops for the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, President Jacques Chirac announced Thursday. In a nationally televised address, Chirac said France will increase its deployment from an already announced 400 troops, and hopes to retain command of the force. He said the United Nations had provided the guarantees France had sought involving the mandate of the force. The decision comes after France came under criticism for backtracking from its intention announced last month to send some 3,500 troops and lead the force. "Two extra battalions will go on to the ground to extend our numbers within UNIFIL," Chirac said. "Two thousand French soldiers are thus placed under blue helmets in Lebanon," he added, referring to the colored headgear UN forces wear. "These 2,000 soldiers include the 400 military personnel already present on the ground," he said. France, along with the United States, helped craft a UN Security Council resolution that allowed for an expansion of the UNIFIL force from the current 2,000 troops to up to 15,000. France's commitment of troops has been closely watched in other countries. Israel expressed satisfaction at the decision, with a senior source in the Prime Minister's Office saying that Israel hoped from the very beginning that France would play a prominent role in the force. Chirac's decision came on the eve of a meeting of the foreign ministers of the 25 EU countries in Brussels to discuss the composition of the force, and its rules of engagement, with one EU official telling AP it wanted to see the force in place within a week. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met in Paris on Wednesday with the French leadership and discussed the force and its rules of engagement. She met with Italian leaders in Rome Thursday. Italy expressed a willingness to send some 3,000 troops, and lead the force, before the French expressed their readiness to contribute a significant amount of men. Livni, following her meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema in Rome, urged the international community to act as quickly as possible to deploy the troops to keep the peace in southern Lebanon. "The extremists who want to inflame the region are watching us, and this will test the strength and determination of the international community," Livni said. Meanwhile, Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja indicated Thursday that the first reinforcements to a UN peacekeeping force could be imminent. "We would like to see the first reinforcements for UNIFIL arrive within a week if possible," Tuomioja said in Berlin. Finland holds the rotating European Union presidency. In addition to Italy and France, other nations considering contributions include Spain, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Greece, and Belgium. Turkey, Morocco, Nepal, New Zealand and China also are considering participating in the mission. Belgium's Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht met in Tel Aviv Thursday with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, amid the expectation that Belgium would contribute a 250 - 300 men contingent. Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis arrived in Israel Thursday night, and said that Greece will contribute a naval contingent to enforce the arms embargo to Hizbullah. She will meet Livni on Friday.