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EU Pledges Half of Troops Needed for Lebanon Mission
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Member states of the European Union (EU) have pledged more than half of the forces needed for a UN mission in south Lebanon, said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in Brussels on Friday.

"Europe is providing the backbone of the force," Annan told reporters after an extraordinary meeting of the EU foreign ministers.

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, who chaired the meeting, said EU member states have pledged between 5,600 and 6,900 new troops for the UN mission in Lebanon.

In addition, EU countries have also pledged naval, air and logistic support for the mission.

The ground troops and support staff combined will exceed half of the 15,000 personnel for the mission agreed on by the UN Security Council earlier this month.

EU countries have already ground troops in the current 2,000-strong UN mission in Lebanon, UNIFIL. The new 15,000-strong UN mission is called UNIFIL 2 by Annan.

The new troops will be deployed in three phases, with the first 3,000 to 4,000 troops arriving very quickly, said Annan.

Tuomioja, whose country holds the EU presidency, said the first troops could be deployed in a week.

The UN mission will be put under the command of France until February 2007, by when Italy will take over command, said Annan.

A new strategic cell will be established in the UN headquarters in New York, which will be headed by an Italian general, said Annan.

Italy, which is reportedly committing the largest number of troops, has been tipped to lead the mission. But after France decided to substantially increase its pledge to 2,000 troops, Annan has asked France to command the new mission.

Lebanon had been ruled by France after World War I, first as part of the French mandate of Syria, then as an independent republic.

Tuomioja declined to give specific numbers of troops each country has pledged, saying he would rather leave the matter to individual countries.

The month-old conflict between Israel and south Lebanon-based Hezbollah ended with a cessation of hostilities on Aug. 14. But a UN mission is designed to transfer the cessation of hostilities toa cease-fire and help find a long-term solution in the region.

Annan said the cessation of hostilities is holding although the situation is fragile. Israel is withdrawing its troops from the south of Lebanon progressively and the Lebanese government is deploying troops in the region, which is a "historic development,"said Annan.
"We may have a unique opportunity to transfer this cessation of hostilities into a durable cease-fire and a long-term solution."

Therefore, it is vital to deploy a "strong, credible and robust" force in the region, he said.

European countries have initially hesitant to commit troops, arguing that the mission does not have a clear mandate. Friday's meeting seemed to have helped address their concerns.

Tuomioja said all questions had been answered at the meeting.

Apart from Europe, countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Turkey have also indicated their willingness to commit troops.

The deployment of troops from these countries has been a matter of concern for Israel, which is jittery about troops from Muslim countries. But Annan said participation of these countries are necessary as it is difficult to muster enough troops for the mission.

"You need to engage and work with these governments to get the troops. You don't have a pool of troops in barracks that you can choose and pick," he said.

Annan cautioned that the new UN mission is not tasked to disarm Hezbollah.

"The troops are not going in there to disarm (Hezbollah). Let's be clear on that."

UN Security Council Resolution 1559 asks for disarmament of all militia in Lebanon -- national and non-national. This was reaffirmed in Resolution 1701, said Annan.

"The understanding was that the Lebanese would disarm (Hezbollah). It is also generally accepted that disarmament of Hezbollah cannot be done by force," he said.

On the issue of whether the UN troops would be deployed on the Lebanon-Syria border to stem possible arms provision to Hezbollah, Annan said Resolution 1701 does not require the deployment of UN troops on the border.

The deployment of UN forces on the Lebanon-Syria border is desired by Israel and the United States. Syria and Iran are thought to be the two major countries behind the militant guerrilla force in south Lebanon.

Annan is traveling to the Middle East and ask for support from the regional players and assess the situation on the ground.

After the trip, he would submit a report to the UN Security Council on the situation and the way to move forward, he said.

(Xinhua News Agency August 26, 2006)

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