Indian army set for stint in Lebanon

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The Independent Online
IN ALL these past 20 years, at least 18 foreign armies have turned up in Lebanon. Palestinians and Israelis, Syrians and Iraqis and Libyans, American marines and French paratroopers, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and British hussars and Italian bersaglieri, Finnish reservists, Irish infantrymen, Norwegian ski-troops, Nigerian and Dutch battalions and Ghanaians and Fijians and Nepalese.

But now - surely the very last word in exotic military arrivals - the army of the Raj is about to enter Lebanon.

Even more colourful is the location of the incoming UN Indian Army battalion - inside Israel's occupation zone in southern Lebanon. And even more pained is the reaction of the Lebanese government, which was hoping for French troops and still wants to know if the Indian Army soldiers will be Muslim, Hindu, Christian or a mixture of all three.

They will be stationed in an area which includes Christian militiamen, Druze and Sunni Muslim villagers as well as Israelis. Welcome, in other words, to the Lebanese cocktail.

The current eight-nation UN "interim" force in southern Lebanon has been in theatre for 20 years, ever since the first Israeli invasion, and the Norwegians, tough and well-trained Nato troops, have been based outside the town of Marjayoun from the start. After Israel's second invasion, in 1982, they found themselves inside the occupation zone, on guard against not only the Israelis but Israel's proxy "South Lebanon Army" militia and infiltrating Hizbollah guerrillas.

But after two decades, Norway has had enough. Despite appeals to stay, the last troops will be out by 7 December.

But the first nation which volunteered to fill the gap provoked many a missing heartbeat within the UN: Ukraine. Mindful that Kiev's UN soldiers ran a thriving black market in Bosnia, their generosity was politely turned down. The UN in Lebanon has no wish to find its petrol, food, armoured vehicles, tyres and guns being sold off to Israelis, Lebanese and Syrians.

Then came India. Even in the debacle of Somalia, the Indians were among the most professional UN troops, and UN officials asked for their most professional officers.

But the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, was hoping that his old personal friend, Jacques Chirac, might save the day.

Not so. France will be more than happy to send its own troops as part of a multinational force to oversee a final Israeli withdrawal, but not to sit in the Lebanese quagmire. The French battalion headquarters in Beirut - they were not then a UN force - was suicide-bombed by some of the Hizbollah's chums in 1983, and French troops would prefer to arrive back in the former "Mandat Francais", in all their glory, when the shooting is over. Besides, the French already have a 246-man logistics unit with the UN in southern Lebanon.

Mr Hariri held out to the end. Several Lebanese ministers privately expressed fears that an Indian force might contain the sort of folk who like to burn mosques - or who might be rather too Muslim for Lebanon's liking. In the end it is said that the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, had to telephone the Lebanese Prime Minister and break the news: it was the Indians or nothing. An advance party arrives next week to "assess the situation on the ground". That should take them a good 20 years.