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Europe Makes Lebanon Force Plans
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European leaders moved forward Thursday with plans for an international force in Lebanon, with an EU official saying it wants to see peacekeepers in place within a week and France preparing an announcement on troop commitments.

But key questions remained over how far Europe was willing to go to back up strong rhetoric on the need for peace with robust action.

France will send additional 1,600 soldiers to reinforce the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and is willing to lead it, French President Jacques Chirac announced late Thursday.

"I have decided to send two extra battalions into the field to expand our UNIFIL contingent. Two thousand French soldiers will thus be placed under the UN flag in Lebanon," Chirac said in a televised address, noting that he had received enough guarantees about the role of UNIFIL in creating a buffer between the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and Israel.

Four hundred French soldiers are already deployed in UNIFIL, which, created in 1978 with a force of 1,900 soldiers, has been based in southern Lebanon largely as observers and is now under the French command.

UN Resolution 1701 unanimously passed on Aug. 11 gave the authorization to UNIFIL to expand from its 2,000 troops to up to 15,000 soldiers.

The United Nations and many countries had expected France to send more troops -- as many as 4,000.

During this summer's fighting, Paris presented itself as the natural leader to push for a cease-fire between Hezbollah militants and Israel - sending its prime minister and foreign minister to Lebanon to survey the devastation and make appeals for peace.

But France has shown reluctance to follow through on diplomatic efforts with strong - and potentially painful - action.

France lost a total of 71 soldiers during peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Belgium, 10 at the outset of the genocide in Rwanda a dozen years ago. France also lost 58 peacekeepers in the Oct. 23, 1983, Hezbollah attacks in Beirut that also killed 241 Americans.

EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet Friday in Brussels to discuss the force. Pressure on the Europeans has grown because Israel has rejected offers of participation from Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia - Muslim countries that do not recognize the Jewish state.

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.

History has much to do with the hesitancy of European powers to make clear troop commitments.

Many European countries have also expressed qualms over committing troops without strong guidelines on when its soldiers would have the right to shoot and also defend themselves.

Most EU nations remain wary of making firm commitments until the mandate for the new force is clarified, fearing that their peacekeepers could be dragged into a conflict with the Hezbollah militants or with Israel if the current cease-fire collapses.

The United States, Britain and Germany will not send any ground troops to Lebanon, while Italy will send 2,000 to 3,000 troops there and would assume the leading role in the mission. Spain has offered 700-800 troops.

The 34-day conflict was triggered by a Hezbollah incursion into Israeli territory on July 12, when guerrillas belonging to the group killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two others.

Some 1,000 Lebanese civilians and more than 115 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed during the fighting.

(Chinadaily.com via agencies, Xinhua News Agency August 25, 2006)


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