France discusses troop deployment with Lebanon

16th August 2006, Comments 0 comments

BEIRUT, Aug 16, 2006 (AFP) - France and Turkey's top diplomats held talks with officials here Wednesday on the deployment of international troops in south Lebanon as a huge rebuilding effort was underway and a fragile truce appeared to be holding.

BEIRUT, Aug 16, 2006 (AFP) - France and Turkey's top diplomats held talks with officials here Wednesday on the deployment of international troops in south Lebanon as a huge rebuilding effort was underway and a fragile truce appeared to be holding.

Some 900,000 refugees who had fled the month-long fighting between Israel and Hezbollah meanwhile continued streaming back to cities and villages in the south that bore the brunt of the Israeli offensive.

Thousands of cars piled with people and belongings jammed streets leading to the south, inching forward and forced to maneuver carefully along bombed out roads and bridges. A trip from Beirut to Tyre, 83 kilometers (51 miles) away, was taking 12 hours instead of the usual hour.

A site of complete devastation greeted many at the end of their journey while some were lucky to find their homes nearly intact.

A spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said around 40,000 people who had taken refuge in neighboring Syria have returned to Lebanon since Monday and that 20,000 to 30,000 of them had been able to reach their villages in the south.

"But many others are still on the road, trapped in traffic-jams," said spokeswoman Astrid van Genderen Stort.

The Lebanese army faced the same problems. Soldiers were working on rebuilding bridges and roads and gathering equipment ahead of deployment in the south of 15,000 troops, a senior military official said.

The official told AFP that bridges were being rebuilt and equipment gathered just north of the Litani River, awaiting government go-ahead for a deployment up to the border with Israel expected to begin by the end of the week.

"These are preliminary, preparatory phases for the southward deployment in which the army will first take up position in areas north of the Litani," which runs mostly some 30 kilometers (20 miles) away from, and parallel to, the border with Israel.

The Lebanese cabinet was to meet later Wednesday to set the date for the deployment in the south as Israeli forces withdraw.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, whose country is expected to lead the international force to shore up the UN-brokered truce, said Paris was willing to contribute troops but first wanted the Lebanese army to deploy.

"France is ready to participate in a strengthened UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon), but the Lebanese army should deploy in southern Lebanon first," he said after a meeting with Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Sallukh.

France is also seeking guarantees on Hezbollah disarmament before moving in.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which led to the ceasefire, stipulates that Lebanese and UNIFIL troops should deploy simultaneously.

Despite accepting the ceasefire resolution, the Shiite militia has said it would keep on fighting until the last Israeli soldier leaves Lebanon and said it will not disarm under force.

The arrival of Lebanese and UN troops in the battered south is seen as a key step toward easing fears that the truce which took effect Monday could unravel.

Hezbollah claimed a "historic victory" in the conflict in which more than 1,150 Lebanese, mostly civilians -- with some 30 percent children aged under 12 -- were killed by Israeli bombs and shells.

Some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, died in the month-long conflict.

Hedi Annabi, the UN assistant secretary general for peacekeeping operations, said a quick deployment was needed to beef up the existing UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) as mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1701 on Friday.

"We would like to see 3,000 to 3,500 troops within 10 days to two weeks," Annabi told reporters at UN headquarters.

The resolution mandates that the multinational UNIFIL will swell from its current level of 1,990 troops to 15,000.

No precise timetable has been set for the deployment of the force, which is thought likely to include contingents from France, Italy, Malaysia, Belgium and another half-dozen countries.

In Israel, army chief of staff Dan Halutz said his forces could remain in south Lebanon's border area for months, according to a parliamentary source.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was due to meet UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York on Wednesday to discuss implementing the ceasefire resolution.

The 34-day conflict began after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers during cross-border raids that left eight other servicemen dead. It wanted to force Israel into a prisoner swap.

Israeli bombardments destroyed thousands of homes, dozens of bridges and hundreds of kilometers (miles) of roads. It also leveled food factories, power plants, fuel stations in attacks which Lebanon has estimated will cost some 3.7 billion dollars to repair and replace.

The cost of the war on Israel's economy is estimated at nearly 5.7 billion dollars, the top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily reported.

A senior Israeli military officer said Wednesday that the army won a "significant" but not "resounding" victory in its campaign to crush Hezbollah.

As Lebanese and Israelis began to pick up the pieces of their lives, the diplomatic war of words and political fallout continued to heat up.

According to two polls in Israel, two-thirds of Jews favor a commission of inquiry into the government's handling of the war.

In the United States, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed Hezbollah's claim to victory, saying the Shiite militant group only achieved "the blame of the world for causing this war."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad chided Washington for claiming it was creating "a new Middle East" by backing the elected governments of Lebanon, Iraq and other nations against "terrorists" and rogue states.

He also warned Israel that the occupation of the Golan Heights "cannot last forever" and said Syrians would emulate Hezbollah to recover their land.

Syria has repeatedly demanded the return of the Golan Heights which Israel conquered in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed in 1981.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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