Chirac commits 1,600 more troops to UN force

24th August 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Aug 24, 2006 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac on Thursday announced he was ordering 1,600 more French troops to join the UN force in Lebanon, bringing the total French contingent there to 2,000 soldiers.

PARIS, Aug 24, 2006 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac on Thursday announced he was ordering 1,600 more French troops to join the UN force in Lebanon, bringing the total French contingent there to 2,000 soldiers.

"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.

He made the announcement after holding a meeting with his Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and his foreign and defence ministers and military chiefs.

Each French battalion counts 800 soldiers. Four hundred French soldiers are already deployed in Lebanon.

Chirac's decision followed international criticism for France's initial "emergency" deployment of just 200 extra troops to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), doubling the French total in the force.

The force is seen as crucial in shoring up a tenuous ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah that came into effect August 14 after a 34-day conflict, under the terms of a UN resolution co-authored by France and the United States.

Several other countries were now expected to formally announce their troop contributions to UNIFIL.

The foreign ministers from the 25 EU member countries were to meet with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in Brussels on Friday to say whether they would also send units.

Italy has already committed to sending around 3,000 soldiers and even offered to take over command of UNIFIL from France. Chirac, though, said "France is prepared, if the UN wishes, to continue to assume command of the force."

Greece, Finland, Poland and Spain have all indicated they, too, will contribute units, prompting European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso to say Thursday he was "confident that Europe will provide the necessary support to expand the UNIFIL."

In addition, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have said they will participate, though Israel was resisting the offer from the latter two because of an absence of diplomatic relations.

UNIFIL — which was originally set up 28 years ago as a toothless observer force on the Israeli border in southern Lebanon — has been authorised to expand from its 2,000-strong force to up to 15,000 soldiers under UN Resolution 1701 passed August 11.

Its new mandate will allow its members to use weapons in self-defence, to protect civilians and to prevent hostile activity in the border area.

Its primary missions are to assist the Lebanese army take control of southern Lebanon from Hezbollah, and to provide humanitarian relief for the one million Lebanese civilians displaced by Israel's offensive.

France is seen as the lynchpin of the expanded force. It has relations with Lebanon, a former protectorate, and Israel, and has lines of communication to Syria and Iran, considered the major sponsors of Hezbollah.

Its initially mild commitment to UNIFIL therefore held many other countries back from contributing troops.

French officials had said they wanted to avoid a repeat of past mistakes in UN peacekeeping missions, such as during the Bosnia war, and guarantees that the force would not come under attack from Hezbollah.

They also pointed out that France was at the forefront of the UN effort to push Syria's military out of Lebanon last year and was equally prominent in the crisis negotiations with Iran over that country's controversial nuclear programme — both reasons to fear reprisals through the Lebanese militia.

International pressure on France, though, has been intense in past days for it to take a bigger role in UNIFIL.

Chirac said in his address Thursday that he had received the "necessary clarifications" from Israel, Lebanon and the United Nations that permitted him to boost troops numbers.

He also said that, in addition to the 2,000 French soldiers deployed in UNIFIL, he would keep 1,700 servicemen currently stationed off Lebanon in the region, though they remain under French military command.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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