France Offers Few Troops to Lebanese Peace Force

France, which currently leads the UNIFIL force in Southern Lebanon, had said it would lead a force to stabilize the restive border region between Israel and Lebanon. But its announcement of such a small force raised concerns that other countries would not dispatch soldiers to make up the 15,000-member force slated to move into the area.

The U.N. was still slated to consider an official plan to map out which countries will participate in the peacekeeping force as it expands from the current 2,000 troops to 15,000.

France, Italy and other potential European contributors have said that the peacekeeping mandate is not clear explicit enough, and that the U.N. needs to set clear rules for troops that would strengthen the force.

Italy has said that it could increase its contribution from 50 and send as many as 3,000 soldiers as long as the U.N. develops explicit ground rules. Both Italy and France have expressed deep skepticism about how the peacekeeping force is expected to interact with Hezbollah militia.

French President Chirac not only repeated this demand but in a telephone conversation with U.N. Secretary Genral Kofi Annan, he said that the choice of contributors should reflect the commitment of all the international community.

Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey are among the countries that have said they can contribute troops.

The first wave of reinforcements, probably in the range of 4,000-5,000 troops is likely to come from Spain, Italy, France and possibly Turkey, a U.N. Security Council diplomat told the Associated Press.

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry told AP that he expects an early agreement on the rules of engagement at a Thursday afternoon meeting in New York, after which “the countries will be reassured and make the offers.”

As the international community continued to debate the possible deployment of soldiers, the Lebanese Army began moving south to stabilize the region.

The force crossed the Litani River along the Mediterranean coastline, 18 miles north of the Israeli border, marking the first time Lebanon’s national army has moved to the region since the 1970’s. This region had been held by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1970s, occupied by Israel from 1982-2000, and by Hezbollah since Israel’s military withdrawal from the area in 2000.

The Lebanese Army was also welcomed by citizens after it returned to the predominantly Christian town of Marjayoun which has traditionally little support for Hezbollah.

Hundreds of people died in the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah and thousands were forced to flee. Homes, buildings and infrastructure have been severely damaged.