UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today that Europe had agreed to provide more than half of an expanded peacekeeping force for Lebanon, with nearly 7,000 troops, and he hoped the “strong, credible and robust” force would be able to deploy in days, not weeks.
“Europe is providing the backbone of the force,” Annan said after an emergency meeting with EU foreign ministers in Brussels. “We can now begin to put together a credible force,” he said.
He said he asked France – which dramatically increased its pledged contribution to 2,000 troops late yesterday – to lead the force until February 2007.
European countries appeared to have overcome initial concern about being caught in the middle between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah. France, in particular, earlier held back from promising a large contribution and demanded a clearer definition of the mission and the rules of engagement.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Annan gave guarantees for the safety of European troops and on rules of engagement, and that France wanted an arms-free “exclusion zone” in south Lebanon.
“We think the best solution for disarming Hezbollah is to make an exclusion zone with the retreat of the Israeli army on one side and the deployment of the Lebanese Army on the other, reinforced by the UN troops,” he said.
Annan said the United Nations also had received “firm commitments” from Muslim nations Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, an was consulting with Turkey about joining the peacekeeping force. Israel has expressed concern, however, about contingents from Muslim countries with which it does not have relations.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, called on Israel to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon. Ending the blockade has been linked to forming a UN force. Israel said it is willing to lift the blockade after the international force and Lebanese army deploy.
Annan said that the UN force would be able to deploy along the Lebanese-Syrian border to help prevent weapons shipments to Hezbollah, but only if the Lebanese government asked for such help. Lebanon, to date, as neither asked for this nor ruled it out – but Syrian President Bashar Assad has strongly objected.
“It is generally accepted that the disarmament of Hezbollah cannot be done by force,” Annan told reporters.
“The troops are not going there to disarm Hezbollah, let’s be clear on that.”
A month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah – which claimed hundreds of lives and caused significant damage, especially in Lebanon – ended 12 days ago with a UN-brokered ceasefire.