France pledges more troops to boost UN force

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France breathed much-needed new life into the international peace force in Lebanon, offering 1,600 extra troops last night to the United Nations.

After several days of shilly-shallying and confusion, President Jacques Chirac announced on television that France would, after all, play a major part in the force which will help the Lebanese Army to police a buffer zone between Israel and Hizbollah.

President Chirac said he had received new guarantees from the UN on the chain of command and force's terms of engagement. He had also received assurances from the Israeli and Lebanese governments that the force would be allowed to operate in reasonable conditions of security. In a nationwide television address from the Elysée Palace, he said he was therefore ready to bring the existing 400-strong French contingent under UN command in southern Lebanon up to 2,000 men.

M. Chirac said France was also prepared to lead the expanded UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), if asked to do so. Italy has already said that it expects to take command. He said he hoped his decision would lead to improved troop offers from other EU and Asian nations to "spread the burden fairly".

While the ceasefire resolution, inspired by the French, was under negotiation at the UN, Paris appeared to be ready to play a dominant role in the international force. To the dismay of the international body and its European partners, France subsequently offered only to double the 200-strong contingent it already has in Unifil.

The change of mind follows pressure from Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, from the US government and from the press and public opinion within France. French officials say that they have succeeded in significantly toughening up and clarifying the rules governing the force.

President Chirac's intervention came on the eve of a European Union foreign ministers' meeting, to be attended by Mr Annan, who has pleaded with the Europeans to do more.

France came under fire from British diplomats yesterday for its "spectacularly bad handling" of the negotiations on the UN force.

The expanded Unifil force is supposed to include up to 15,000 soldiers to help the Lebanese Army police a buffer zone in Hizbollah-controlled south Lebanon. Diplomats said that the French military decided that the troops' rules of engagement were not sufficiently robust and the chain of command from the UN too vague. There were also fears that France's poor relations with Iran and Syria might make French troops a target for Hizbollah. Mr Chirac made his address after Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, was quoted as having warned her French counterpart that unless Paris substantially increased its troop contribution the UN resolution could not be enforced.

After holding talks in Paris, she flew yesterday to Italy to stiffen the spine of the Italians, warning that the situation in south Lebanon remained "explosive". Although the Italian government confirmed yesterday it expects to take command of the expanded UN force, the Italian military remains cautious. The Italian government is worried that any confrontation between its soldiers and Hizbollah may lead to repercussions in Afghanistan.

Italy has 1,300 troops based in western Afghanistan, with headquarters in Herat, tasked with controlling the borderwith Iran.

Who's going?

* Italy - 3,000 troops. Has said that it would be willing to lead the mission and has pledged the largest contingent of soldiers so far

* France - 2,000 troops.

President Chirac last night announced an increase in the number of French troops after an initial pledge was criticised

* Denmark - Will send three navy ships to help patrol coastline but no ground troops

* Sweden - Will send one ship but no troops because of deployment of forces in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Congo and Liberia

* Germany - Has offered to make an unspecified contribution to the naval force but has ruled out sending ground troops, partly down to fears over German soldiers getting in confrontation with Israelis

* UK - Control and command. No British troops will be sent.

* Spain, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Belgium, Nepal, Turkey, Morocco, New Zealand and China are considering troop contribution. Reservations include concerns about the force's precise mandate and existing commitments in other countries.

* Israel has barred countries with which it does not have diplomatic relations from taking part, affecting Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia