Annan Asks France to Lead Lebanon Force

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday that Europe had agreed to provide close to 7,000 troops for a U.N. force in Lebanon that he hoped France would lead.

Speaking at an emergency meeting of European foreign ministers, Annan also said he had "firm commitments" from Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, and was consulting with Turkey about providing the rest to complete the 15,000-strong peacekeeping force.

"Europe is providing the backbone of the force," Annan said, adding that he hoped the force would be able to deploy in days, not weeks.

He said he asked France — which dramatically increased its pledged contribution to 2,000 troops late Thursday — to lead the force until February 2007.

The peacekeeping force will be "strong, credible and robust," Annan said.

In response to a call by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Israel on Friday said it would lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon after the increased international force and the Lebanese army were deployed to prevent Hezbollah guerrillas from importing new arms. Israel did not specify how many troops it would take on the ground to lift the blockade.

European countries appeared to have overcome initial concern about being caught in the middle between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah. France, in particular, earlier held back from promising a large contribution and demanded a clearer definition of the mission and the rules of engagement.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Annan gave guarantees for the safety of European troops and on rules of engagement, and that France wanted an arms-free "exclusion zone" in south Lebanon.

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"We think the best solution for disarming Hezbollah is to make an exclusion zone with the retreat of the Israeli army on one side and the deployment of the Lebanese Army on the other, reinforced by the U.N. troops," he said.

Annan said that the U.N. force would be able to deploy along the Lebanese-Syrian border to help prevent weapons shipments to Hezbollah, but only if the Lebanese government asked for such help. Lebanon, to date, as neither asked for this nor ruled it out — but Syrian President Bashar Assad has strongly objected.

"It is generally accepted that the disarmament of Hezbollah cannot be done by force," Annan told reporters. "The troops are not going there to disarm Hezbollah, let's be clear on that."

A month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah — which claimed hundreds of lives and caused significant damage, especially in Lebanon — ended 12 days ago with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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