U.N. Hopes for 3,500 Troops in Mideast

The Associated Press
Tuesday, August 15, 2006; 8:27 PM

UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations hopes that 3,500 well-equipped troops can deploy to Lebanon within two weeks to quickly reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping contingent so the Lebanese army can start moving into the south and Israeli troops can withdraw, a senior U.N. peacekeeping official said Tuesday.

Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hedi Annabi stressed that the Lebanese deployment and Israeli withdrawal can start even sooner, using the current 2,000-strong U.N. force, "if the political will is there."

Friday's Security Council resolution for a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah authorizes up to 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the south to help 15,000 Lebanese troops take control of south Lebanon as Israel withdraws. The aim is to create a buffer zone free of Hezbollah fighters between the Litani River, 18 miles north of Israel, and the frontier.

At the moment there are 2,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the south in the force known as UNIFIL, and Annabi told reporters of the efforts to dramatically increase it to the authorized 15,000 U.N. troops.

"We hope that there can be an initial deployment of up to 3,500 troops within 10 days to two weeks," Annabi said. "That would be ideal to help consolidate the cessation of hostilities and start the process of withdrawing and deployment of the Lebanese forces as foreseen in the resolution."

The United Nations has not yet received any formal offers of troops though France, Italy, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have indicated they will make significant contributions and a dozen other countries have also expressed a willingness to help.

Forty-five countries attended technical sessions for potential troop contributors on Saturday and Monday, and the U.N. hopes the first announcements of new troops will be made at a formal meeting on Thursday _ or soon after, a senior U.N. official said.

France is expected to lead the force, which is commanded by French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, but it has not yet made any announcement of how many troops it plans to send.

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

A senior U.N. official said it is technically possible to complete the Israeli withdrawal and Lebanese deployment in a week or two.

The 3,500 troops who will hopefully provide the vanguard of the beefed-up force should be well-trained, well-equipped and be able to deploy without outside help _ which means they will likely be from several Western nations, the senior official said.

France and the United States have sent military planners to meet with U.N. peacekeeping planners to determine how countries can participate in the larger U.N. force and to coordinate future activities, a second U.N. official said Tuesday.

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