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United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is due in Beirut today to discuss the deployment of the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon next month. His trip will also take him to Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory and other countries in the region to seek the "constructive engagement of all the players."

Annan's meeting with European Union foreign ministers in Brussels late last week ended up in a firm pledge from the European nations to provide up to 6,900 extra soldiers for the peacekeeping force. The EU's commitment has boosted the UN Secretary-General's confidence in starting to "put together a credible force."

A successful deployment of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) will make it possible to transform the cessation of hostilities into a durable ceasefire.

Annan's call to deploy some of these soldiers within days is understandable as the cessation of hostilities remains fragile. Providing the backbone to the force, Europe will play a major new political role in the Middle East.

Support from other parts of the world reveals good diplomacy of the Secretary-General. He has commitments from troops from Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh. A clear point Annan made in Brussels about the UNIFIL troops' mission is necessary.

The UN peacekeepers' mission will be tasked with monitoring the cessation of hostilities, helping ensure humanitarian access to civilians and the safe return of displaced persons, and supporting the Lebanese government forces as they deploy in the south and enforce their responsibilities under the Resolution 1701. The UNIFIL troops are not going to disarm members of Hezbollah, which can only be done by way of political agreement, rather than force.

While soliciting troops from the countries around the world, the UN needs to help Lebanese refugees return home. The month-long conflict has left the displaced persons a tough road to home. With tens of thousands of homes and hundreds of kilometers of road damaged or destroyed, many of them are staying homeless.

While Lebanon has become the focus of the international attention, the situation in Gaza should not be ignored. The UN Relief and Works Agency warned that a lack of access in and out of the Gaza Strip is forcing its operation there to come to a standstill, as shortages of food, fuel and construction supplies jeopardize every element of its relief effort.

Will this part of the Middle East come higher on the agenda of the international effort after Lebanon?

Annan's travels in the Middle East are an appropriate approach, and co-operation and support from all players are needed.

(China Daily August 28, 2006)


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