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Countries to Meet on U.N. Force in Lebanon

Countries that could contribute to an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon were to meet Thursday to find out how the troops will operate, and U.N. officials hoped many would commit soldiers to the force.

France is willing to lead the force until at least February, but French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said Wednesday its peacekeepers need to have enough resources and a clear mission or the situation could turn to catastrophe.

The U.N. resolution that led to Monday's cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah authorized up to 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help 15,000 Lebanese troops extend their authority throughout south Lebanon, which Hezbollah controls.

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The aim is to create a buffer zone free of Hezbollah fighters between Lebanon's Litani River and the U.N.-drawn border, about 20 miles to the south.

Alliot-Marie said in an interview with France-2 television that the mandate of the strengthened force is still "fuzzy" and warned that the United Nations needs to spell out its exact mission and rules of engagement.

That's what U.N. peacekeeping officials will do at a meeting Thursday afternoon chaired by Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said he expects early agreement at the meeting on the concept of operations and the rules of engagement, which have been drafted with help from French and U.S. military planners.

"The countries will then be reassured and make the offers," he predicted.

Jones Parry called Thursday's meeting among dozens of potential donor countries "crucial" and said the pace of putting together the expanded force needs to accelerate. He said he hopes troops will be on the ground within two weeks.

"I'm quite encouraged by the number of governments who are indicating quietly that they're in the market to provide troops," he said. "I expect that after (the) meeting there will be an acceleration and those who are in a position to deploy quickly and show leadership will do so."

U.N. officials and diplomats said questions about the mandate for the force and whether it would be required to disarm Hezbollah fighters were holding up troop commitments. Some countries also want to see how many new troops France decides to send before making any announcement.

"We will be very happy if France agrees to provide a significant contribution that will provide the backbone of the force," Annabi said.

Forty-five countries attended technical meetings for possible troop contributors on Saturday and Monday, and Thursday's formal meeting could attract even more.

The United Nations has not yet received any formal offers of new troops for the 2,000-strong U.N. force, known as UNIFIL, though France, Italy, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei have indicated they will make significant contributions.

Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hedi Annabi said Tuesday the U.N. hopes 3,500 well-equipped international troops can reinforce the U.N. contingent within 10 to 14 days to help consolidate the fragile cease-fire and create the conditions for Israeli forces to head home.

Israel started withdrawing some troops soon after the cessation of hostilities came into force and more than 50 percent of the areas it held had been transferred by Wednesday night, the Israeli military said.

"If there is a place that Israel can withdraw from and the Lebanese army can come, plus international forces, we'll do it," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters after meeting Secretary-General Kofi Annan for more than an hour. "But if it takes time until the international forces are organized, it takes time until Israel withdraws. This is the equation."

Livni said Israel's top priority is to end Hezbollah's control of south Lebanon.

Israel wants the expanded U.N. force to help monitor the Lebanese border to prevent Iran and Syria from replenishing Hezbollah's weapons because it doesn't believe the Lebanese army can do that alone, she said.

CountryWatch: Israel | Lebanon | Syria | Iran