EU nations pledge 7,000 Lebanon troops

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Indy Politics

European countries yesterday offered at least 7,000 troops for a stronger UN force in Lebanon, but differences remained on how large the force should be. President Jacques Chirac suggested a force of "up to 15,000" as mentioned in the UN ceasefire resolution, was "completely excessive".

After a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, said Europe had agreed to provide 7,000 soldiers - almost half of the number required by the UN resolution. He said he hoped the stronger force would be able to deploy within days, not weeks. After pledges of 3,000 troops from Italy and 2,000 from France, Spain said it could send 1,200, Poland about 1,000, Belgium 400 and Finland 200.

"Europe is providing the backbone," Mr Annan said. "We can now begin to put together a credible force." He said that he also had "firm commitments" from Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, and was consulting with Turkey.

Asked if he expected to assemble the full force mentioned in UN resolution 1701, he said: "Not today, but I will get the 15,000." A United Nations meeting to finalise the force is expected on Monday. An agreement is also emerging to split the leadership of the force between the overall command of an Italian official, based in New York, and the operational command of a French general, based in Lebanon. This is regarded by Paris and Rome as a simpler and more workable chain of command than in many previous UN peace-keeping operations.

EU nations have been reluctant to commit troops without guarantees that they will be able to defend themselves. France, in particular, demanded clearer rules of engagement.

Having received those rules, President Chirac announced on Thursday night that France would expand its forces by 1,600 men to a total of 2,000. At a joint press conference in Paris yesterday with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, he said he would have been accused of being a "mad dog" if he sent a large number of troops without a clear right to self-defence.

The plan is for UN troops to help 15,000 Lebanese troops take control of southern Lebanon from Hizbollah, as Israeli troops withdraw. President Chirac said so many troops in a small area would get in one another's way. "It doesn't really make sense. So what is the right number, 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000? I don't know," he said.

Belgium will send almost 400 troops, including anti-mine experts, medical units and engineers, the Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, said yesterday. The country's Foreign Minister, Karel de Gucht, said European countries must step in to the breach because "the United States is not able to openly play an active role in controlling and solving the conflict because it has no credibility whatsoever for Arab and Muslim nations as a negotiator or as a provider of neutral peacekeeping troops."

France's decision to send 2,000 troops, after days of uncertainty, seems to have helped to overcome the timidity of other EU countries. Ambiguities remain in the UN resolution, but it authorises the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) "to take all necessary action" to defend itself and prevent hostile activities. The Europeans have bad memories of weak UN mandates for forces in Rwanda and the Balkans. They say that the new Unifil will not disarm Hizbollah, but oversee negotiations to persuade the militia to surrender its weapons to the Lebanese army.