Lebanon needs 13,000 troops 'as soon as possible'

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The head of the United Nations force in Lebanon has called for the urgent dispatch of 13,000 troop reinforcements who are supposed to help the Lebanese army rid the south of armed Hizbollah militias and police a buffer zone north of Israel.

"They need to arrive as quickly as possible," said Major General Alain Pellegrini, the commander of the 2,000-strong UN force that is to be beefed up in order to secure an Israeli withdrawal and the disarmament of Hizbollah.

"But before that, there is something that can be done quickly - a deployment of the Lebanese army," the French officer said.

Under the provisions of a UN resolution adopted on Friday night, the Lebanese army is supposed to dispatch 15,000 troops to the south. The same number of blue-helmets are to "accompany and support the Lebanese armed forces" who are to ensure that southern Lebanon will be "free of armed personnel".

Representatives of 40 countries were invited to a "technical" meeting of potential troop contributors at UN headquarters last night. It was the third such meeting and UN sources say they hope the general outline of the force would become clear "within a week".

However, a western diplomat said: "no firm offers are expected until details are firmer," and European leaders said the mandate for the force must be clear before they would agree any deployment.

But the disarming of the Hizbollah fighters remains unresolved. Their leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said last night it was "wrong timing" to discuss the issue of guerrilla weapons while Lebanon was under attack.

The resolution provides for the Lebanese army to disarm the Shia militia, which has aroused some scepticism as many of the Lebanese soldiers are Shia.

Maj-Gen Pellegrini said yesterday: "Do you try integrating some of these people into Lebanon's army? Do you make border guards out of them? Can we persuade them to give up their weapons and return to civilian life? There are many possibilities - it's up to the Lebanese people to examine them."

President Jacques Chirac of France, which is widely expected to lead the expanded force, said he would decide on the French role only when he has considered the force's mandate.

Lebanon rejected proposals that had the backing of Israel for a strong multinational force which would disarm Hizbollah. But there were concerns that a multinational operation would be considered as an occupying force, which led the UN Security Council to compromise and decide to reinforce the mandate of Unifil which has been stationed in southern Lebanon for the past 28 years.

France is wary about the mandate because it lost 58 paratroopers serving in a multinational force in October 1983, when a Hizbollah suicide bomber attacked their barracks in Beirut.

The resolution authorises the force to use "all necessary action ... to ensure its area of operations is not utilised for hostile activities of any kind".

It is also expected to prevent arms being moved illegally into Lebanon from such countries as Syria and Iran that have armed Hizbollah.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy has made it clear the mission of the troops would not include disarming Hizbollah by force.

The Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi, told President President George Bush in a phone call yesterday that Italy wanted "a clear mandate, free from ambiguity" for the force for which it could contribute 3,000 troops.

France already participates in the Unifil force in south Lebanon along with China, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Poland and Ukraine. Other countries expressed a willingness to take part in the expanded force including Italy, Spain, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Italian Foreign Minister, Massimo D'Alema, said: "I think Italian soldiers can arrive here in a few days. That means two weeks ... and we can achieve the withdrawal of the Israeli soldiers."