UN daubs paint on blue line as troops stake claim to Lebanese border

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The Independent Online

Everyone expected the United Nations to move its peace-keeping army down to the Lebanese border, not to go mad.

Everyone expected the United Nations to move its peace-keeping army down to the Lebanese border, not to go mad.

But urgent orders in the early hours of yesterday to dispatch Irish and Ghanaian UN troops from their bases in southern Lebanon through the Israeli frontier to positions on the other side of the Israeli-Lebanese fence do raise serious questions about the sanity of the peace-keeping army.

UN officers were astounded by the order. "It totally discredits the UN here," one said. "I suppose Rode-Larsen is trying to get the Nobel peace prize."

Terje Rode-Larsen is the UN secretary general Kofi Annan's special envoy to the Middle East and one of the architects of the doomed and - in Arab eyes - hopelessly unfair 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO. For weeks, he has been trying to persuade the Lebanese government to allow the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) to deploy down to the Israeli frontier after Israel's unilateral withdrawal in May.

The Lebanese had complained that Israel was still infringing their territory in at least seven locations. The 60 UN troops have been sent to two of these locations - on the other side of the Israeli-built fence.

Since 1978, Unifil - the "interim" in its title long ago ceased to be a joke - has been holding an area of southern Lebanon between the Golan Heights and the Mediterranean but prevented by Israel for 22 years from fulfilling its mandate of moving to the border. Mr Rode-Larsen, who has several times been accused by the Lebanese authorities of adjudicating frontier disputes in Israel's favour, has been desperate to send UN soldiers south now the Israelis have left. The Lebanese refused to give permission until the alleged infringements were rectified.

So at 2.30am yesterday, Irish and Ghanaian troops were suddenly ordered to send platoons to the Israeli border crossing on the sea-coast at Rosh Haniqra.

The Irish UN battalion sent 38 men, with a party of UN engineers and earth-moving equipment, and they were allowed by the Israelis to pass through to Yaroun south of Bent Jbeil. The Ghanaians sent their contingent to Manara, close to an Israeli settlement.

They are, in theory at least, demarcating the UN's own "blue line" frontier between Israel and Lebanon, a border marked on the 1923 maps between Palestine and Lebanon from which the Israeli frontier wire deviates.

Although Israel appears to accept the line at Yaroun and Manara, its fence still stands to the north of the UN positions. And at Manara, a road used by Israeli vehicles to reach the nearby Israeli settlement apparently passes through the Ghanaian unit's position.

Is the UN now to allow Israeli cars along a road which the Lebanese government regards as its own? Will the Lebanese anyway accept the deployment?

Yesterday afternoon, Lebanese military officers were en route to the border in a UN helicopter to survey the area, noting that the "blue line" - now physically painted blue on rocks around the new UN positions - is "manned" by UN troops, albeit cheek by jowl with Israeli soldiers and at least 900 feet south of the supposedly abandoned fence. Other apparent frontier violations, near Shebaa and Alma Shaab, have not yet received the UN's attention.

Orders for the deployment - as militarily absurd as it is politically dangerous in the eyes of experienced UN officers in the area - were given by the UN's force commander, Maj-Gen Seth Kofi Obeng, presumably on the instructions of the secretary general in New York. In turn, Mr Annan is assumed to have sent his orders on the advice of his colleague Mr Rode-Larsen.

We live, as the Lebanese say, in interesting times. But without any peace prizes.