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EU will provide large peace force

by editor2
August 26th, 2006

BRUSSELS — The European Union swept away a major hurdle to keeping the peace between Israel and Hezbollah by agreeing Friday to provide the “backbone” of a French-led peacekeeping force of 15,000 soldiers in Lebanon.

Israel said it would lift its air and sea embargo of Lebanon once the U.N. force takes control, a process that EU officials said could take three months.

The blockade is meant to stop arms from getting to Hezbollah, but it is also hindering deliveries of food and fuel.

The commitment of up to 6,900 European soldiers relieved concerns that the peacekeeping force might be stillborn because of reluctance by many countries to send troops to the Middle East without clear instructions or authorization to use weapons.

Most of the new troops will come from Italy and France.

Belgium volunteered 400 soldiers, including crucial land-mine-removal units.

Germany and Denmark offered naval forces, and the Finnish foreign minister spoke of sending 250 soldiers if his parliament approved.

About 150 French army engineers landed Friday at Naqoura in southern Lebanon, joining 250 of their countrymen already among 2,200 peacekeepers in the country.

Italy’s leader reportedly said late Friday that his nation’s troops could leave for Lebanon as early as Tuesday.

The international force is meant to reinforce the Lebanese army, which has begun moving 15,000 soldiers of its own into the south to assert the government’s authority in the region along the Israeli border for the first time in decades.

But 12 days after the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, questions remained about how to enforce a vague truce and prevent the area from exploding again.

The European Union and United Nations agree that the peacekeeping mission must have a strong Muslim component to give it credibility.

But Israel objects to participation by nations that do not recognize the Jewish state, saying such troops would make it impossible for Jerusalem to share intelligence with the U.N. force.

Israel’s objection would include Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, which have volunteered troops.

Turkey, which does have diplomatic relations with Israel and would be acceptable to all parties, has not decided whether to join the force.

Still unclear is how the United Nations would meet Israel’s demand to prevent the Islamic militants of Hezbollah from rearming.

Dismantling Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets and other weapons already in southern Lebanon was another unresolved issue.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said it was not the United Nations’ task to strip the guerrillas of their weapons.

He said disarmament is an issue for Lebanon’s government and “cannot be done by force.”

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