Peacekeeping force 'could be agreed soon'

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The Independent Online

France, the United States and Britain are close to agreement on a draft UN resolution that could lead to the deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon after a ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah, a senior British official said.

"We've turned the corner," the official said, referring to an agreement on a two-step approach that would provide for a ceasefire to be followed "very quickly" by a multinational force, which it is hoped France would lead. In a second stage, intensive work would continue on a permanent ceasefire and political settlement involving Israel, the Lebanese government and the Hizbollah militia.

As of last night, however, France was refusing to attend a UN troop contributors' meeting at the UN today, and the British official stressed that more negotiations were needed. The progress was made after intensive negotiations between senior officials in Washington, Paris and London. Tony Blair has spoken to President Jacques Chirac as part of the efforts over the past two days aimed at reconciling the French and US positions, which are being merged into a single draft resolution.

France, which circulated its own draft text over the weekend, has insisted that an immediate ceasefire must be in place before international troops are deployed in the south, while the US argued that such a truce would not eradicate the root cause of the conflict between Hizbollah and Israel and result in further conflict.

"We will not send a force to Lebanon to continue the work of the Israeli army," a French diplomat told Le Monde. "We do not want to discuss the international force before a political agreement," the French Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, told the newspaper yesterday. "France does not want to fall into a trap that would lead to the existence of a force without a prior political agreement."

The US also says it wants a political agreement and a sustainable ceasefire in southern Lebanon, but Washington believes the peacekeeping force could be negotiated while the fighting continues.

The Israeli government says the international force should move in to keep the peace when it has destroyed the military strength of Hizbollah.

Paris fears that, in those circumstances, the fighting might go on for several more weeks. The international force would then appear to the Lebanese government and people, as well as the Syrian and Iranian backers of Hizbollah, as an extension of US and Israeli power.

The senior British official said last night that both Washington and Paris had made concessions in order to move ahead with the draft UN resolution as a matter of urgency. The next step is to persuade the other two veto-holding powers, Russia and China, to agree to the two-phase approach.

In an interview with Le Monde yesterday, Jean-Marie Guehenno, the UN undersecretary general for peacekeeping, said the UN did not want to act as "a referee" between Washington and Paris. But he appeared to lean towards the French side of the argument. "For a force to be deployed, the fighting must stop," he said. "It will be much easier to find the troops if the fighting has stopped."