Peacekeepers Bring Calm to South Lebanon

The Associated Press
Sunday, November 26, 2006; 2:17 PM

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Three months into their mission of enforcing a cease-fire, U.N. peacekeepers have succeeded so far in keeping the peace at an Israeli-Lebanon border that previously had been a Mideast flashpoint for decades.

No shooting incidents have been reported across the international border since the force, called the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, began beefing up with the arrival of French forces Aug. 19, shortly after a U.N. cease-fire ended this summer's Israeli-Hezbollah war.

But the peacekeepers' mission remains far from complete: Israel's warplanes continue to fly over Lebanon, and Israeli troops hold a divided border village.

Perhaps most troubling to the world community, the militant group Hezbollah has so far kept its weapons, albeit hidden.

That raises troubling issues as Lebanon faces a political crisis that could plunge it into greater instability and violence.

Nevertheless, the period since the cease-fire has been "one of the longest periods of calm" on the border, Milos Strugar, senior U.N. official, said in a recent interview.

Despite the successes, the peacekeepers have had to worry about their own safety in an increasingly turbulent Lebanon.

The political instability in Beirut, where the government is divided between a pro-Syrian Hezbollah camp and an anti-Syrian U.S.-backed camp, could affect the troops' long-term mission, which is to help Lebanon's government spread its authority throughout the country.

The latest violence _ the assassination of a prominent Christian cabinet minister _ already has plunged the country into even more uncertainty.

The force of just under 10,000 peacekeepers patrols alongside an estimated 17,000 Lebanese soldiers in the buffer zone between the Lebanese-Israeli border and the Litani River, which is 18 miles away at its farthest point.

The force is mandated to go up to a maximum of 15,000. The smallest contributor, Luxembourg, has two engineers, and the largest, Italy, has over 2,000 soldiers.

The Lebanese army's deployment in the buffer zone, for the first time in three decades, is one of the positive developments Strugar cites since war's end, along with a buffer zone largely free of visible unauthorized weapons.

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