UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations appealed to European countries Friday to contribute to an expanded peacekeeping force in Lebanon that would have a balance of European and Muslim troops so that Israel and Lebanon will view it as legitimate.
Italy endorsed sending troops to Lebanon but did not commit itself to specific numbers. Finland decided to send up to 250 peacekeepers to Lebanon, but said they would not be deployed until November.
Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said the news was promising but more European soldiers are needed for a vanguard force of 3,500 troops that the U.N. wants on the ground by Aug. 27 to enforce a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah militants, who are part of the Lebanese government.
"It's very important that Europe now steps forward," he said. "We want this force that we deploy to have a kind of multinational, multilateral character so that it enjoys the confidence of both sides," he said.
The United Nations has been seeking "a Muslim-European or European-Muslim force" because the combination provides "a legitimacy that satisfies both sides," he said.
At a meeting of 49 nations on Thursday, the only countries to offer mechanized infantry battalions, which will be the front line of the expanded force, were three predominantly Muslim countries — Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia — and Nepal, which is predominantly Hindu.
Israel's U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman told the BBC on Friday that "it would be very difficult if not inconceivable for Israel to accept troops from countries who do not recognize Israel ... to guard Israel's safety."
Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia do not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. The foreign minister of Malaysia said Friday that Israel should have no role in deciding which countries make up the force.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said after Gillerman's statement that "Israel hasn't ruled anyone out, Israel hasn't ruled anyone in."
France, which commands the current 2,000-strong force known as UNIFIL, had been expected to make a significant new contribution that would form the backbone of the expanded force. But French President Jacques Chirac disappointed the United Nations and other countries by announcing that France would contribute just 200 combat engineers to its current 200-member contingent in Lebanon.
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie defended the country's decision to send just 200 additional troops.
"I can't let it be said or implied that France is not doing its duty in the Lebanese crisis," Alliot-Marie said.
She noted that France was willing to continue leading the force, while Denis Simonneau, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, reiterated that France could always send more troops.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday night that Germany would not send combat troops. Germany instead is prepared to offer "a strong maritime component to control the supply of weapons to Lebanon by sea" and ensure that Hezbollah is not supplied with arms by ship, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Friday.