UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations hopes that 3,500 well-equipped troops can deploy to Lebanon within two weeks to quickly reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping contingent so the Lebanese army can start moving into the south and Israeli troops can withdraw, a senior U.N. peacekeeping official said Tuesday.
Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hedi Annabi stressed that the Lebanese deployment and Israeli withdrawal can start even sooner, using the current 2,000-strong U.N. force, "if the political will is there."
Friday's Security Council resolution for a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah authorizes up to 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the south to help 15,000 Lebanese troops take control of south Lebanon as Israel withdraws. The aim is to create a buffer zone free of Hezbollah fighters between the Litani River, 18 miles north of Israel, and the frontier.
At the moment there are 2,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the south in the force known as UNIFIL, and Annabi told reporters of the efforts to dramatically increase it to the authorized 15,000 U.N. troops.
"We hope that there can be an initial deployment of up to 3,500 troops within 10 days to two weeks," Annabi said. "That would be ideal to help consolidate the cessation of hostilities and start the process of withdrawing and deployment of the Lebanese forces as foreseen in the resolution."
The United Nations has not yet received any formal offers of troops though France, Italy, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have indicated they will make significant contributions and a dozen other countries have also expressed a willingness to help.
Forty-five countries attended technical sessions for potential troop contributors on Saturday and Monday, and the U.N. hopes the first announcements of new troops will be made at a formal meeting on Thursday — or soon after, a senior U.N. official said.
France is expected to lead the force, which is commanded by French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, but it has not yet made any announcement of how many troops it plans to send.
"We will be very happy if France agrees to provide a significant contribution that will provide the backbone of the force," Annabi said.
A senior U.N. official said it is technically possible to complete the Israeli withdrawal and Lebanese deployment in a week or two.
The 3,500 troops who will hopefully provide the vanguard of the beefed-up force should be well-trained, well-equipped and be able to deploy without outside help — which means they will likely be from several Western nations, the senior official said.
France and the United States have sent military planners to meet with U.N. peacekeeping planners to determine how countries can participate in the larger U.N. force and to coordinate future activities, a second U.N. official said Tuesday.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the planning and meetings are private.
The senior U.N. official stressed that the first priority is to consolidate the cessation of hostilities.
Then, departing Israeli troops will start handing over positions to U.N. peacekeepers, who will in turn help Lebanese army troops deploy, the official said.
The "rolling withdrawal" is likely to start in Marjayoun, a key town in the northeast, and move in an arc to the southwest, the official said. All Israeli forces had left Marjayoun on Tuesday.
The senior U.N. official said troop contributors want to be reassured by the Israelis and Lebanese that they are committed to implementing the resolution.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is flying to New York to meet Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday to discuss implementation of the resolution and "the importance of having the international forces in Lebanon as expeditiously as possible," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem.
Israel wants a speedy U.N. deployment "firstly to allow the Israeli troops to pull out of south Lebanon and to ensure the creation of the Hezbollah free zone in the south ... and secondly to make sure that the international arms embargo on Hezbollah is implemented," he said.
"It's clear from what we've seen in the last two days that there are those in Tehran and Damascus who have publicly expressed their opposition to the resolution, and it's clear that they will try to, through their actions, prevent implementation of the resolution," he said.