EU should 'clarify' use of UNIFIL troops: France

21st August 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Aug 20, 2006 (AFP) - EU countries are to hold a meeting in the coming days to discuss their contributions to the expanded UN force in Lebanon, French and Finnish officials said Sunday.

PARIS, Aug 20, 2006 (AFP) - EU countries are to hold a meeting in the coming days to discuss their contributions to the expanded UN force in Lebanon, French and Finnish officials said Sunday.

The gathering, likely to be held Wednesday in Brussels, was called by France and some other EU countries, current EU president Finland said.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told AFP he asked his Finnish counterpart, Erkki Tuomioja, for the meeting "so the different European countries can clarify their contributions to the reinforced UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon)."

He urged France's partners to show "European solidarity" and told Europe 1 radio that he was "happy to see that the Italians, I hope the Spanish and I hope other Europeans will also urgently come up with contingents that will bring credibility to the Israeli withdrawal."

Paris has come under criticism for sending just 200 soldiers to the expanded UN deployment mandated under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 agreed August 11 that set out the terms of ceasefire between Hezbollah and the Israeli military.

Some 150 French troops departed France for Lebanon on Sunday to join the other 50 already on the ground.

Another 200 French soldiers are already incorporated into UNIFIL under its previous mandate, bringing the total French representation in the force to 400.

The new reinforcements — all military engineers — are to be deployed "close to the Israeli border," said their commander, Colonel Christophe Issac.

Another soldier, Lieutenant Colonel Laurent Romeur, said their mission should last "two to four months, but we are preparing to stay another two months beyond that."

The deployment is far below what was expected from France when it co-wrote the UN resolution with the United States calling for a combat-ready UN force of up to 15,000 troops to bring peace to southern Lebanon.

France, tapped to retain command of UNIFIL, had been expected to send 2,500 to 4,000 soldiers, but President Jacques Chirac made his preliminary offer of just 200 extra troops while leaving open the option of sending more later.

In the meantime, France is seeking contributions from countries such as Italy and Turkey while seeking to clarify the UN force's mandate and rules of engagement before committing any more troops.

France is particularly unhappy that the UN mandate allows UNIFIL to use force only in circumstances of direct self-defence, and not to enforce the resolution as it had sought.

There were fears the UN force might be attacked by Israeli or Hezbollah fighters or caught in the middle of renewed hostilities with no real capability to strike back.

Hezbollah has been blamed for 1983 suicide bombings in Beirut that killed 58 French soldiers and 241 US Marines, while an Israeli air attack using precision bombs destroyed an identified UN post in southern Lebanon on July 25, killing four UNIFIL observers.

Israel also staged a commando raid deep inside Lebanon on Saturday which UN chief Kofi Annan called a violation of the ceasefire.

A senior Israeli foreign ministry official told AFP Sunday that France's small initial contribution had "provoked astonishment and confusion" in Israel.

If Paris does not stump up more soldiers, "its decision cannot but contribute to bring us a step back, with the rearming of Hezbollah, which will wait for an opportune moment to restart its hostilities," he said.

Resolution 1701 calls for Israeli troops to withdraw from southern Lebanon in tandem with the arrival of Lebanese troops to the Hezbollah heartland and a beefed-up UN force.

UNIFIL was supposed to add 3,500 troops to its existing 2,000-strong force within 10 days as Israel pulls back from areas it occupied in its devastating month-long offensive.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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