UNITED NATIONS – Nearly 50 countries that could contribute the 13,000 new troops needed to expand the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon met Thursday amid concern over the ground rules and firepower the soldiers could use.
Bangladesh pledged up to 2,000 troops and France offered 200, a disappointment to some who expected more from the country likely to lead the force.
In an opening speech, Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said at least 3,500 troops are needed to deploy within 10 days to expand the 2,000-strong U.N. force trying to help maintain an uneasy truce between Israel and Hezbollah militants.
"Every moment we delay is a moment of risk that the fighting could re-erupt," he said.
Malloch Brown told diplomats from the 49 countries invited to the meeting that details on how the expanded force will operate and the rules of engagement will make clear that "this will be a strong, robust force, equipped and authorized to take all necessary action in its key tasks."
The U.N. resolution that led to Monday's cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah after a brutal 34-day war authorized up to 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help 15,000 Lebanese troops extend their authority throughout south Lebanon, which Hezbollah controls, as Israeli troops withdraw. The aim is to create a buffer zone free of Hezbollah fighters between the Litani River and the U.N.-drawn border, about 18 miles to the south.
Malloch Brown said the draft rules of engagement call for the use of force to prevent hostile activities in the buffer zone and to resist attempts to prevent the U.N. force, known as UNIFIL, from discharging its duties. The rules also allow UNIFIL to use force in assisting the Lebanese government if asked to secure its borders to prevent foreign forces, weapons and ammunition from entering the country, he said.
France and Italy said earlier Thursday that the peacekeeping mandate — partly written by the French — is not explicit enough, and demanded the U.N. set clear rules of engagement for troops that would bolster the force. A key concern, not mentioned by Malloch Brown, is whether the force will be called on to disarm Hezbollah fighters, as called for in a September 2004 U.N. resolution.
Even though the Israel withdrawal and handover to U.N. forces has gone well thus far, some potential contributors are believed to be concerned about avoiding confrontation with Hezbollah or being caught in the middle of a future conflict. Germany — uneasy given its Nazi past of any possible military confrontation with Israeli soldiers — said it wouldn't send any but is expected to provide logistical support.
Italy has said it could quickly send as many as 3,000 soldiers — up from its current contribution of about 50 — but Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi's office said that he was pushing for explicit ground rules. In a telephone conversation late Wednesday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Prodi called for "a clear mandate, without any ambiguity and with very precise rules of engagement, for the soldiers who will be deployed," the premier's office said.
Malloch Brown said "a rapidly reinforced UNIFIL is key to a historic reassertion of Lebanese sovereignty over the south. And most important of all, it is key to establishing conditions needed for the kind of broader political process required to underpin a permanent cease-fire."
"The key to resolving this conflict and many of the wider challenges faced in the region is not military but political ... and it is very important that the parties to the conflict understand this," he said in the speech to the closed meeting, which was released by United Nations.