France Declines to Contribute Major Force for U.N. Mission

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 18, 2006

UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 17 -- France on Thursday rebuffed pleas by U.N. officials to make a major contribution to a peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, setting back efforts to deploy an international military force to help police a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, according to U.N. and French officials.

French President Jacques Chirac said Thursday that France would contribute only 200 additional troops to the U.N. operation in southern Lebanon, which the Security Council wants to expand from 2,000 troops to 15,000. Chirac said that a force of about 1,700 French troops and crew members on warships off the coast would provide logistical support.

Senior U.N. peacekeeping officials said they had hoped France would send thousands of troops, forming the backbone of a large and robust mission that would spur other countries to join. Under a Security Council resolution adopted last week, the U.N. force is to help 15,000 Lebanese soldiers take control of southern Lebanon as Israeli soldiers withdraw.

The French decision on troop levels, reported Thursday in the Paris daily Le Monde, sent U.N. officials scrambling during a meeting here to find countries willing to fill the void.

At the meeting, several governments, including Indonesia, Nepal and Bangladesh, committed to send a total of nearly 4,000 troops, while Britain, Denmark and Germany agreed to send warships to patrol Lebanon's Mediterranean coast for arms smuggling. The United States pledged to provide logistical support, but not ground troops.

Germany's U.N. ambassador, Thomas Matussek, said that pending parliamentary approval, his government would also provide customs officers and specialized police to help Lebanon monitor its border with Syria, a key transit point for Hezbollah's arms supplies.

But there were no firm commitments to contribute personnel for a crucial, well-equipped spearhead force of 3,500 troops that the United Nations is trying to get into southern Lebanon within the next 10 days, according to India's U.N. ambassador, Nirupam Sen. The United Nations had hoped that the mission would be made up largely of forces from advanced military powers, including France, Italy, Spain and Turkey, whose troops and firepower could deter challenges.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called Chirac on Thursday to plead with him to reconsider. The French president's office released a statement later indicating he had not yielded.

The statement confirmed that France would send a company of 200 military engineers to Lebanon. They would join more than 200 French peacekeepers already serving in the relatively small U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL. Chirac also told Annan that "France was prepared to assume command" of the bolstered U.N. force, according to the statement.

Addressing potential troop contributors, the U.N. deputy secretary general, Mark Malloch Brown, said no U.N. task in Lebanon was "more urgent, nor more fundamental to preserving peace" than sending a "strong, robust force" to help the Lebanese army assert its authority over south Lebanon for the first time in more than 25 years. "Every moment we delay is a moment of risk that the fighting could re-erupt," he said.

After the meeting, Malloch Brown said that although he had feared that France's announcement would "cast a shadow" over U.N. recruiting efforts for the mission, it had not "deterred others from coming forward with offers." Still, he declined to discuss whether there were commitments for the first phase of the U.N. deployment.

Israel's U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, said he hoped that other countries would fill the void. "There were a lot of expectations the French would actually lead this thing, and a lot of countries are waiting to see what France does," Gillerman said. "I'm not sure France is the key. We know there are quite a few other countries who want to take part."

Gillerman said that the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon was "moving along" but that a final decision to return all the troops to Israel would "obviously depend very much on the international force being deployed."

Diplomats said France had done little before Thursday to dampen expectations that it would play a far more ambitious peacekeeping role.

U.S. officials said they had been caught off guard by the French decision but still harbored hopes that France would reconsider and provide more troops. "It took us a little by surprise," said one Bush administration official, who declined to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. "We are seeking an explanation. We assume there is more to the story."

The decision was prompted in part by the French military's anxiety over serving under U.N. command, diplomats said. French officials cited the loss of 84 French troops in the U.N. mission in the early 1990s in Bosnia, and the seizure of French peacekeepers as hostages. French officials had also expressed concern that Hezbollah fighters were not prepared to disarm and might turn their guns on peacekeeping troops, according to U.N. diplomats. In 1983, Islamic militants killed 58 French paratroops in a suicide bomb attack in Beirut.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.

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