Peacekeeping troops could take months to assemble

Posted in UN , Other | 15-Aug-06 | Author: Ewen MacAskill| Source: Guardian (UK)

A United Nations patrol (background) watch Lebanese civilians evacuating from Marjayoun in the south, to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon August 11, 2006.

Doubts about a speedy deployment of the proposed 15,000-strong United Nations force for Lebanon were expressed by diplomats around Europe yesterday.

Javier Solana, the European Union foreign affairs chief, said he would like to see international troops begin deploying this week or early next, but other European diplomats said a speedy deployment of the force was hopelessly optimistic. They said it might be possible to send a few hundred as a symbolic gesture next week, but politically and logistically it would take weeks, and maybe months, to put together a force of 15,000.

Marwan Hamade, Lebanon's communications minister, said the Lebanese army was preparing to cross the Litani river into southern Lebanon within two or three days. It would then be flanked by "the first contingents of an international force", he said. The Italian foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, said during a visit to Beirut yesterday that Italian troops could join a UN force within two weeks.

The UN has still to negotiate the details of the force's mandate. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, is due to report on progress to the security council at the end of the week. There are already gaps emerging between France, which is expected to lead the force, and other countries, about its role. Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French foreign minister, told Le Monde that the mission would not include disarming the Hizbullah militia by force, a key demand of Israel's.

France is reported to be ready to contribute about 5,000 troops to the force. Italy has promised between 2,000 and 3,000 and the Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, called his cabinet together yesterday to discuss a contribution of between 800 and 1,200. Other countries have offered smaller contributions. Finland has promised 200, and New Zealand an unspecified number. Portugal and Spain are considering requests. Britain has ruled out any significant contributions.

Mr Solana listed Australia, Canada, Indonesia and Malaysia as among the non-EU countries prepared to join the force. Germany has not decided whether to send troops but has effectively ruled out combat troops, given its history. Any German contribution would likely be in areas such as surveillance or logistical support.

The UN plan is for the 15,000-strong international force to deploy with 15,000 Lebanese troops, moving south as the Israeli army stages a phased withdrawal.

A European diplomat, expressing scepticism about a speedy deployment, said there would have to be a meeting at the UN first to discuss an overall plan and a group would have to go to Lebanon to assess needs on the ground. Many of the ambiguities in the ceasefire resolution agreed by the UN security council on Friday would also have to be ironed out, he said.