France said last night it was ready in principle to lead an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon but stopped short of making a formal commitment. The Lebanese government simultaneously decided to begin deploying 15,000 of its own soldiers in the south of the country.
On another day of intense diplomatic activity, the United Nations strained to give momentum to the fragile ceasefire and peace plan. Uncertainty remained, however, particularly over the viability of fully disarming Hizbollah fighters, an issue largely skirted around by the Lebanese cabinet.
Pressure has been building on France formally to announce a willingness to spearhead the force. As a first step, the UN hopes to send about 4,000 international peacekeepers to join the Lebanese troops within about 10 days.
But with the peacekeepers expected to join the 2,000-strong Unifil peacekeeping force already there, confusion remained over how strong a mandate they would be given to ensure a security vacuum did not develop that would allow armed Hizbollah fighters to reinfiltrate the area. "We already have the command (of Unifil) and we are ready to continue to do this until next February including for the enlarged Unifil," France's Defence Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, told French television. She emphasised, however, that Paris would make no formal decisions on the size of its contribution until more was known about the rules of engagement for Unifil and its eventual size.
"When you send in a force and its mission is not precise enough, and its resources are not well adapted or large enough, that can turn into a catastrophe, including for the solders that we send," she said.
Senior military advisers from several UN member states are due to meet in New York today to discuss the peacekeeping force and its rules of engagement. Italy has indicated a willingness to join the force while Indonesia, Turkey and Malaysia may contribute.
Earlier yesterday, the French Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blaze, travelled to Beirut in an attempt to get clarification on Lebanon's deployment and disarmament intentions.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, met with the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to spell out her government's needs before fulfilling its side of the ceasefire bargain and withdrawing its troops from Lebanon. "The war is not over yet," said Ms Livni, referring to the difficulties in implementing the ceasefire resolution.
Earlier, the Israeli chief of staff, Dan Halutz, had warned that the military would cease its withdrawal from southern Lebanon if the Lebanese army was not deployed there rapidly.
UN officials acknowledged that the longer it took to deploy a force the more likely that the entire peace plan could unravel. "The more time we take, the more risks we will incur," one senior source said.
The issue of disarming Hizbollah threatened to become a major stumbling block. The US yesterday repeated that the responsibility for the issue would lie with Lebanon and its forces.
"There is only going to be one legitimate government in Lebanon and armed militia groups, including Hizbollah, have to be disarmed as well," the American envoy to the UN, John Bolton, told reporters. At its meeting last night, the Lebanese cabinet appeared to accept a compromise arrangement under which Hizbollah fighters would no longer carry arms, nor fire them from armoured bunkers in the frontier zone. The UN is working for a demilitarised zone between the blue line and the Litani river.
Hassan Fadlallah, a Hizbollah MP, told al Jazeera that the guerrilla group would not relocate because its members lived in southern Lebanon. Mr Fadlallah reaffirmed Hizbollah's refusal to disarm, arguing that it did not violate the resolution as the arms would be kept in storage and not displayed in public.
In Brussels, senior diplomats from several EU countries indicated their willingness in principle to play a role in the peacekeeping mission.