- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2000

NEW YORK U.N. peacekeeping forces hope to begin moving into the territory abandoned by Israel and its proxy militia as early as next week once they have confirmed that the Israeli withdrawal is complete, an official said yesterday.

"We're supposed to be fanned along the border since 1978," said Timur Goksel, the military advisor who has been with the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or Unifil, since it was created by the U.N. Security Council 22 years ago. "That's our mandate, we're just a little late in getting there."

With the hasty departure of Israeli troops and the collapse of its proxy, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), the organization is making arrangements to nearly double the 4,500-person mission and, joined by Lebanese security, patrol the region up to the Israeli border.

The terms of the 1978 mandate say Unifil's first task is to confirm that Israel has indeed withdrawn completely from the country.

Despite dramatic pictures of departing Israeli soldiers and fleeing militia members and their families, the verification will be a tricky thing, say U.N. officials.

First a team of cartographers will lay down a "line in the sand" literally by dropping brightly colored tin drums along a predetermined boundary from low-flying helicopters. Unifil will then determine that the SLA has been dismantled.

The most complicated part, officials say, is finding and destroying land mines and other weapons planted by the Israelis and Islamic militias inside the Israeli-occupied security zone.

"There is a process that cannot be short-circuited," Mr. Goksel said by telephone from his headquarters in southern Lebanon. He said the verification would be made easier by the departure of the SLA, but complicated by the presence of so much ordnance.

"It should still be seven or eight days, at least."

The former Israeli zone, left largely in the hands of Hezbollah guerrillas, has so far been been surprisingly quiet, said U.N. officials who braced for the worst when Israeli troops began pulling out six weeks ahead of schedule.

President Emile Lahoud toured the region yesterday, the first time in recent history a Lebanese official has gone that far south. The government has also sent in civil servants, such as customs agents, to establish control over the territory.

Once it is expanded likely with reinforcements from the Danish, Italians, Irish and French Unifil is to bring its humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts into the zone that has for 15 years been occupied by Israeli soldiers.

"We're going to work with the Lebanese government in assuring their own control over the territory and maintain peace in that part of the region," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday morning. "Of course, the law-and-order functions belong to the government of Lebanon, not to us."

Terje Roed Larsen, Mr. Annan's special envoy to the region, arrived in Beirut yesterday and will spend about a week to firm up support in Syria, Israel and possibly other capitals as well.

"Considering there is no real state authority in this area, it's fascinating that it's held this well," said Mr. Goksel, adding that the real credit belonged to the Islamic militia, Hezbollah.

"Hezbollah has been acting very responsibly, sending their own clerics and political leaders into the villages to reassure the Christian" minority, said Mr. Goksul.

But Israel, the Jewish state that has just abandoned its last active fight with an Arab neighbor, is still skittish. There is widespread concern about revenge attacks against SLA militia members.

That's why the United Nations is eager to line up contributors who can add as many as two battalions to the six already in place.

U.N. officials refuse to discuss recruitment until the phase is complete, but reports out of Paris, Dublin, Rome and Copenhagen indicate that these battalions are likely to be beefed up.

France, which already has 240 troops in Unifil, is expected to be a mainstay of the expanded force, but Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine told reporters at a NATO meeting in Florence, Italy, yesterday that it is up to Lebanon "to show it can control its territory."

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