- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006

KHIAM, Lebanon — Lebanese troops pressed on with a historic deployment to the south yesterday while the United Nations made an urgent appeal to European countries to contribute to a beefed-up peacekeeping force.

“It’s very important that Europe now steps forward,” Deputy U.N., Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown told reporters. “The next few days are going to be very challenging to make sure that we meet this commitment to 3,500 troops, or 7,000 boots on the ground in 10 days from now.”

He said that while Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Nepal had offered troops as part of the expanded U.N. force to help shore up a fragile truce, there was a need to deploy a balanced European-Muslim force that would be acceptable to both Lebanon and Israel.

“That is enormously helpful and a major contribution, but we want this force that we deploy to have a kind of multinational, multilateral character so that it enjoys the confidence of both sides,” Mr. Malloch Brown said.

The Jewish state has balked at the prospect of countries with which it has no diplomatic relations — such as Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia — being deployed on its border to enforce the cease-fire with Hezbollah.

“We said before that a European-Muslim force [would bring] a legitimacy that satisfies both sides to this conflict,” Mr. Malloch Brown said

The scope of the force and its rules of engagement were believed to be the major stumbling blocks for European nations, but the deputy secretary-general said countries now had full details and should be ready to decide on a role.

France announced Thursday it would contribute an extra 200 troops, far short of the major commanding role that many had foreseen for the former colonial power in Lebanon.

President Bush said he hoped France would reconsider its decision and dispatch more troops, noting that “there have been different signals coming out of France.”

In Rome, the Cabinet gave its approval in principle to the deployment of Italian troops, but Prime Minister Romano Prodi declined to give any firm commitment on numbers, saying the matter had “not yet been examined.”

Besides Italy, several countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey, have expressed willingness to contribute troops. Pakistan and Bulgaria have pledged to consider the matter, while Germany ruled out sending ground forces.

Mr. Prodi said that as well as a clear mandate, the U.N. force needed Hezbollah’s blessing if Italy were to take part.

“On that point, I have been given commitments from [Lebanese Prime Minister] Fuad Siniora,” he said.

The 28-year-old U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the extra troops will be charged with policing the fledgling cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel until the full 15,000 peacekeepers stipulated by the Security Council can be mustered and deployed.

UNIFIL is seeking to add 3,500 troops to its existing 2,000-strong contingent within 10 days as Israel pulls back from areas it occupied in its devastating month-long offensive.

Lebanese troops took up positions in the heavily bombed border town of Khiam at dawn yesterday, deploying outside a school in the hilltop town of 35,000 people just four miles from the Israeli border.

The town had been a stronghold of the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah since Israel last pulled out in 2000 after a 22-year occupation.

Government troops began deploying in the south on Thursday for the first time in decades in line with the U.N.,-brokered truce that came into force Monday.

Meanwhile, thousands of families displaced by the conflict continued to flock home to the south, as foreign aid groups voiced concern about getting emergency supplies to the most stricken regions through Israel’s continuing blockade.

U.N. aid agencies said 400,000 people in Lebanon have returned to their home areas and another 107,000 refugees who fled to neighboring Syria have crossed back into Lebanon.

Israel said it will enforce the air and sea blockade it imposed on Lebanon at the start of the conflict until it has completed its pullout.

Planes and ships will be given clearance only on a case-by-case basis through the United Nations.

The Lebanese national air company Middle East Airlines said it had been granted permission to resume flights to and from Cairo.

Israel’s assault on Lebanon began on July 12 after a deadly cross-border raid by Hezbollah in which the Shi’ite militants captured two Israeli soldiers. The group still holds the two.

The United Nations wants the troops in place a week from tomorrow.

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