Bush urges France to commit more troops to Lebanon force

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The French government has hit back against criticism that it has fallen short of expectations in helping to maintain the ceasefire in Lebanon as President George Bush urged France to send more troops.

"I can't let it be said or implied that France is not doing its duty in the Lebanese crisis," said Michele Alliot-Marie, the French Defence Minister. She pointed to Muslim countries, which could make up a large proportion of the force. Israel sought to veto participation by Muslim countries with which it did not have diplomatic relations, including Malaysia and Indonesia.

"To expect countries who don't even recognise Israel to guard Israel's safety I think would be a bit naive," said Dan Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the UN. The Malaysian Foreign Minister, Syed Hamid Albar, replied: "We're going to be on Lebanese territory ... We're not going to be on Israeli territory."

Mr Bush raised the pressure on France. "France has said they'd send some troops," he said. "We hope they send more. There's been different signals coming out of France."

UN diplomats said the French military had got cold feet once it emerged that the resolution setting up the ceasefire conditions provided for an expanded UN force, rather than a multinational one, and feared that the proposed rules of engagement would not be robust enough. One diplomat said "the military has a deep mistrust of the UN, because of Bosnia", where troops were undermined by a weak mandate.

But President Jacques Chirac is also said to be concerned that French troops may be targeted by Hizbollah, which is supported by Syria and Iran. Mr Chirac's relations with the Syrian President, Bashar Assad, are at an all-time low following the assassination last year of the French leader's friend Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. And France has adopted a hard line in attempts to curb the Iranian nuclear programme.

UN officials remain optimistic they can deploy 3,500 soldiers to the region within 10 days to top up the 2,000 troops of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon already there. Under provisions of the ceasefire that came into effect on Monday, the French-led Unifil force should be raised to 15,000 to assist the Lebanese Army.

The ceasefire resolution was largely drafted by France, and UN officials publicly expressed the hope that French soldiers would make up "the backbone" of the proposed international force. But on Thursday, a communiqué from Mr Chirac's office said his government remained ready to take command of the mission but would only send 200 new troops.

The Lebanese Foreign Minister, Fawzi Salloukh, was disappointed. "We are expecting more from France," he said. Mr Chirac stressed that 1,700 French troops in the region were on stand-by but would not operate as part of a UN operation. "We'd hoped, and we make no secret of it, that there would be a stronger French contribution," Mark Malloch Brown, the UN's deputy secretary general, said. After a meeting of 49 potential troop contributors in New York on Thursday, officials said they had received pledges of 3,500 troops from Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nepal. Germany pledged a maritime task force pending approval by parliament.

Several countries are waiting to confirm participation depending on the rules of engagement, which have not yet been agreed. A second meeting to discuss the force's military mandate is expected early next week.

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