The United Nations appealed to European countries Friday to contribute to an expanded peacekeeping force in Lebanon that would have a balance of European and Muslim troops so that Israel and Lebanon will view it as legitimate.
Italy endorsed sending troops to Lebanon but did not commit itself to specific numbers though Prime Minister Romano Prodi has said the country could quickly send as many as 3,000 soldiers. Finland formally decided to send up to 250 peacekeepers to Lebanon, but said they would not be deployed until November.
Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said the news was promising but more European soldiers are needed for a vanguard force of 3,500 troops that the UN wants on the ground by Aug. 28 to enforce a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah militants, who are part of the Lebanese government.
"It's very important that Europe now steps forward," he said. "We want this force that we deploy to have a kind of multinational, multilateral character so that it enjoys the confidence of both sides," he said.
The United Nations has been seeking "a Muslim-European or European-Muslim force" because the combination provides "a legitimacy that satisfies both sides," he said.
At a meeting of 49 nations on Thursday, the only countries to offer mechanized infantry battalions, which will be the front line of the expanded force, were three predominantly Muslim countries, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia and Nepal, which is predominantly Hindu.
Malaysia's foreign minister said Friday that Israel should have no role in deciding which countries make up the force.
Israel's UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, told The Associated Press that "the resolution makes it very clear that the force will have to be agreed on by Lebanon and Israel. This is a force which the UN can compose but not impose."
"Israel has not ruled anybody out, and is not in any way ruling out Arab and Muslim countries," he said. "It would, in fact, welcome the participation of Arab and Muslim countries. However, the participation of countries who are hostile to Israel or do not recognize Israel's right to exist would be unthinkable."
Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia do not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Gillerman noted that the Malaysian foreign minister was quoted as saying recently that Hezbollah should be rearmed.
"I doubt whether Israel, Lebanon or the Security Council would welcome the participation of soldiers whose mission is to rearm Hezbollah," he said.
Malloch Brown stressed that the final decision on the composition of the force will be made by the United Nations "but as a matter of good form in peacekeeping you want a force which is broadly acceptable in its composition to both sides."
France, which commands the current 2,000-strong force known as UNIFIL, had been expected to make a significant new contribution that would form the backbone of the expanded force. But French President Jacques Chirac disappointed the United Nations and other countries by announcing that France would contribute just 200 combat engineers to its current 200-member contingent in Lebanon.
"We hope they send more. And there's been different signals coming out of France," he told reporters at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md.
The United States has said it will help with logistics and planning, not ground troops. Still, Bush said he would work to convince allies to take part.
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie defended the country's decision to send just 200 additional troops.
"I can't let it be said or implied that France is not doing its duty in the Lebanese crisis," Alliot-Marie said.
She noted that France was willing to continue leading the force, while Denis Simonneau, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, reiterated that France could always send more troops.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters "I expect we haven't heard the last from them."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday night that Germany would not send combat troops. Germany instead is prepared to offer "a strong maritime component to control the supply of weapons to Lebanon by sea" and ensure that Hezbollah is not supplied with arms by ship, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Friday.
Malloch Brown praised Germany's offer but said it did not help supply the 3,500 troops immediately needed for the vanguard force.
(Chinadaily.com via agencies August 19, 2006)