Sat, Aug 26, 2006 - Page 1 News List

UN confident of amassing 15,000 troops for Lebanon

AGENCIES , BRUSSELS AND NAQURA, LEBANON

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, left, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, center, and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht enter Lambermont Palace in Brussels yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was confident European countries would make major troop pledges for a 15,000-strong Lebanon peace force, at an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers yesterday.

Italy has offered up to 3,000 troops and France boosted its pledge to 2,000 on the eve of the Brussels meeting. Optimism is growing that others will raise their thus far meager contributions under prompting from the US, Israel and others.

"I am very confident that we will have a successful meeting this afternoon and that Europe will assume its responsibility and show its solidarity with the people of Lebanon," Annan said after he met Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

Asked whether he expected the UN to be able to raise the 15,000-strong multinational contingent mandated to police a fragile truce between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, he replied: "Not today, but I will get the 15,000."

UN officials see a strong European contingent as vital to the balance of an expanded peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, which is also expected to have a strong Muslim component and work alongside Lebanese soldiers in the south of the country.

They say the force is urgently needed to preserve the truce between Israel and Hezbollah, which came into effect on Aug. 14 after a month of fighting which killed more than 1,300 people.

EU countries had initially been hesitant about taking part in a mission which could leave them caught in the crossfire if hostilities reignite. But diplomats say new rules of engagement for the UNIFIL force have reassured most.

Questions remain over the leadership of the force, with both Rome and Paris offering to take the role.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the current UNIFIL troop commander, General Alain Pellegrini of France, would remain in office, but Italy proposed a dual command under which it could also take a leadership role from New York.

In Lebanon, another 170 French troops arrived yesterday in the country's south coastal town of Naqura to reinforce UN peacekeepers along the border with Israel.

The soldiers, specialists in demining and reconstruction, will be under the command of the UNIFIL, Admiral Xavier Magne said.

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