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European Union Attempts to Gather Troops in Lebanon

European Union nations will make a renewed attempt Wednesday to raise troops for a U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, but many remain wary of committing soldiers without safeguards to ensure they don't get sucked into the Middle East conflict.

The gathering of senior foreign and defense ministry officials from the 25 EU nations will prepare a meeting of foreign ministers hastily called for Friday in an effort overcome delays in securing contributions to the 15,000-strong U.N. force.

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Diplomats said Wednesday's talks were unlikely to produce a breakthrough, but there are expectations that nations may come forward with at least tentative offers of more troops.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is set to attend Friday's meeting in Brussels to press for the Europeans to urgently send troops to underpin the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.

Annan's envoy to the region on Tuesday stressed the need for a rapid international deployment to back up 15,000 Lebanese army troops moving into the southern border region.

"Until the Lebanese force is completely deployed and has asserted its full authority and until there is a robust peacekeeping force there and the necessary cooperation is established, there will be, up to a point, a security vacuum," said U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen.

He said the security situation would remain "vulnerable" for the next two or three months.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, diplomats were working on rules of engagement for the force that would allow troops to open fire in self-defense, protect civilians and back up the Lebanese army in preventing foreign forces or arms from crossing the border.

But it was not clear if the draft would satisfy European nations who are concerned their troops could get caught in crossfire between Israel and Hezbollah or forced into a confrontation with either side if, for example, Israeli troops launch more raids across the border or Hezbollah resists efforts to disarm it.

EU countries agree that the strengthened U.N. force will not forcibly disarm the militia but merely oversee a political solution that would induce Hezbollah to turn in its weapons.

"Nobody wants to be saddled with the task that the Israeli military failed to achieve in a month of intense combat," said a European diplomat who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The Europeans also have bitter memories of their troops being killed or humiliated while serving under weak U.N. mandates in Rwanda and the Balkans and are insisting robust rules before committing forces.

France, which has disappointed some by offering only 200 troops to double its contribution to the existing U.N. force in Lebanon, is particularly sensitive to any fatalities.

It lost 58 French paratroopers to Hezbollah bomb attacks in 1983 that also killed 241 Americans serving with a multinational force in Beirut. And half of the 167 fatalities suffered by the U.N. peacekeeping force during the Bosnian war were French.

However, France may increase its offer if it gets a satisfactory mandate, officials say.

Italy has tentatively agreed to lead an international force and has offered 3,000 troops. Other European nations considering contributions include the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Belgium, Norway and Poland.

Pressure on Europe has grown because Israel has rejected offers of participation from Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia — Muslim countries which do not recognize the Jewish state. Other nations mulling contributions include Turkey, Morocco, Nepal, New Zealand and China.

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