Friday, August 25, 2006

France says 15,000 UN troops for Lebanon too many

France says 15,000 UN troops for Lebanon too many
By Nadim Ladki (REUTERS)

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Friday he could raise 15,000 troops for a United Nations force mandated to police a truce between Israel and Hizbollah, but France called the target excessive. European and other nations have been dithering over how many troops to dispatch on the potentially hazardous mission, despite prompting from the United States, Israel and others. Asked before talks with European foreign ministers whether he expected to be able to raise all the troops he is seeking, Annan replied: "Not today, but I will get the 15,000." But French President Jacques Chirac, whose diplomats helped draft the August 11 Security Council resolution that authorized up to 15,000 peacekeepers to deploy in Lebanon, said he was unsure how many troops were needed but that 15,000 was too many. The number was "completely excessive," Chirac told a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris. "It doesn't really make sense. So what is the right number, 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000? I don't know," he said. Italy has offered up to 3,000 troops and France boosted its pledge to 2,000 on the eve of the Brussels meeting. Belgium pledged to take part in the force on Friday. Other possible troop contributors include Spain, Poland and Finland. About 150 French soldiers arrived by ship in Lebanon's southern port of Naqoura on Friday to join 50 extra troops already sent as part of France's initial offer of 200. European Union president Finland, which will chair the talks in Brussels, said the bloc's credibility was at stake and that it must show it can deploy rapidly to protect a fragile truce. U.N. officials want a strong European contingent alongside a sizeable Muslim component in the expanded UNIFIL force, which is to work with 15,000 Lebanese troops being deployed in the south.

The U.N.-backed truce took effect on August 14 after 34 days of fighting which cost the lives of nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mainly soldiers.

Israel wants the beefed-up U.N. force to move to the border before it withdraws fully from Lebanon. It also has vowed to keep its partial sea and air blockade on Lebanon until the force deploys on the Syrian border to prevent Hizbollah from rearming. Chirac said the blockade was "extremely prejudicial to the economy and life in Lebanon, and in my view quite unjustified." Lebanon said on Thursday it would seek technical assistance from Germany to help control the border with Syria, but had no immediate plans to ask UNIFIL to deploy soldiers there.
Syria threatened a day earlier to close the border if U.N. troops were sent there.

"At the moment we are seeing some very unconstructive signals from Syria," Germany's Merkel said. She said Syria was not helping to resolve the conflict between Israel and Hizbollah, but should in the long term be included in any political process to settle it. EU countries had initially hesitated about sending troops into a danger zone between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas. But say new rules of engagement for UNIFIL have reassured most. Questions remain over the leadership of the force, with France saying UNIFIL's current French commander would stay in his post, and Italy proposing a dual command under which it could also take a leadership role from New York.
In a sharp public rebuke over his handling of the war in Lebanon, a poll published on Friday showed 63 percent of Israelis want Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign. The Yedioth Aronoth poll showed for the first time a majority favored Olmert quitting, along with a surge in support for the rightwing Likud party and its leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Olmert, a career politician who lacks the combat credentials of many of his predecessors, has seen his public standing plummet for failing to deliver a fatal blow to Hizbollah. Israel has also pursued an offensive against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, where hospital officials said eight people were wounded on Friday in air strikes on the home of a Palestinian militant and what the army said was a weapons depot. The Israeli army has been trying to force the release of an Israeli soldier seized by militants from Gaza on June 25. There has been no word on the fate of Corporal Gilad Shalit, but the Hamas-led Palestinian government said progress was being made toward the release of a Fox News correspondent and cameraman seized by gunmen in the Gaza Strip on August 14.

(Additional reporting by Jerusalem, Paris and Brussels bureaux)

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