Lebanon's army goes back to the front line

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The Independent Online

At last. The Lebanese army moved through the streets of southern Lebanon's stony villages yesterday as United Nations peace-keepers looked down from their new observation posts on the Lebanese-Israeli frontier.

At last. The Lebanese army moved through the streets of southern Lebanon's stony villages yesterday as United Nations peace-keepers looked down from their new observation posts on the Lebanese-Israeli frontier.

Given the smartly dressed Lebanese troopers in their gleaming Land Rovers, the military police in their dark green armour and the paramilitary lads in their grey and black camouflage, it was almost possible to forget that it was all the wrong way round.

For the UN was originally supposed to be in the towns and the Lebanese army, as far as the UN brains were concerned, on the border with Israel.

Instead, the UN sits on the "blue line" shoulder-to-shoulder with the Israelis, while the Lebanese soldiers settle into their new billets to the north. At least 200 of them - half from the formerly occupied area in the south - had taken over the Lebanese Technical High School at Bint Jbeil yesterday, sipping bottled water by the sports ground or driving through the little hill villages of Rmeich and Ein Ebel.

On UN paper, it all looks fine. The secretary general Kofi Annan's special UN envoy, Terje Roede-Larsen, arranged for the 600 UN soldiers to be posted to the frontier to prove Israel really had withdrawn from all Lebanese territory.

The Lebanese government had insisted upon this step. But just a few weeks ago, before Mr Roede-Larsen - one of the supposedly heroic architects of the deeply flawed Oslo agreement between Palestinians and Israelis - turned up in Beirut, the boot was on the other foot. The UN was insisting on a peace-keeping deployment within the former occupied zone, but with Lebanese troops on the border. If the Lebanese did not accept this, the UN planned to pull out of Lebanon.

As one old UN hand in New York put it yesterday: "We were ready to fulfil the mandate - which is to 'establish peace and security' in the area which the Israelis have vacated. But we've now allowed the Lebanese, who should be on the border, to do that. They are in the towns where we are meant to be. We are on the frontier where they are meant to be. Larsen screwed it all up."

Which appears to be true. The UN soldiers on the "blue line" - running along the old Palestine-Lebanon frontier - are now there as "observers"; something they were never supposed to be under UN Security Council Resolution 425 of 1978, which followed Israel's first invasion of Lebanon.

It is the Lebanese army's duty to defend the frontier of Lebanon, just as it is the Israeli army's job to defend Israel. Now Mr Roede-Larsen has, in effect, given that impossible and unmandated mission - to "defend" both countries - to about 600 UN soldiers.

Needless to say, the Lebanese are delighted by the new scenario. Their soldiers sit snugly in the newly "liberated" towns of southern Lebanon while the UN takes the stick. In Marjayoun, the Lebanese authorities took back the army barracks in the Christian town for the first time in 22 years.

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