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Last Updated: Friday, 25 August 2006, 18:16 GMT 19:16 UK
EU to supply half Lebanon force
French troops paint UN insignia on their vehicle in Lebanon
France already leads Unifil, the existing peace force
The European Union has pledged half the 15,000 troops needed for an expanded UN force in southern Lebanon, UN chief Kofi Annan has said.

Mr Annan, speaking after talks with EU ministers in Brussels, said the force would be led by France and that the first troops should arrive within days.

French President Jacques Chirac earlier said the plan to send 15,000 troops to such a small area was "excessive".

The force was authorised as part of the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah.

Mr Annan said he had asked Italy to take over command of the force from France in February.

UN TROOP PLEDGES
France - leadership and 2,000 troops
Italy - 2,000 - 3,000 troops
Bangladesh - two battalions (up to 2,000 troops)
Malaysia - one battalion
Spain - one mechanised battalion
Indonesia - one battalion, an engineering company
Nepal - one battalion
Denmark - at least two ships
Poland - 500 troops
Finland - 250 troops
Belgium - 302 troops, later rising to 392
Germany - maritime and border patrols but no combat troops
Norway - 100 soldiers

There will also be a strategic cell created to help provide military guidance to the troops on the ground, which will be based at UN headquarters in New York and led by an Italian general.

On Friday morning, a contingent of 170 French troops - specialists in demining and reconstruction - arrived on an amphibious assault craft at the southern Lebanese port of Naqoura.

But the BBC's Chris Morris in Beirut says that the longer it takes to send in a more robust international force, the greater the chance that fighting could resume.

Israel has reiterated that it will not finally withdraw from southern Lebanon until the UN peacekeeping force is deployed.

The UK's Europe Minister Geoff Hoon has denied that the international community had dithered over committing to the force.

He told the BBC: "Any country before it deploys force has to be confident that those soldiers are given the right rules of engagement, given the right instructions and are operating effectively within a multi-national force."

In the meantime, EU foreign and security affairs chief Javier Solana has asked Israel to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon.

'Backbone'

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Annan said that the plan would only work if the enlarged UN force, called Unifil 2, was "strong, credible and robust".

"More than half the force has been pledged today. Not only troops on the ground but we also got naval assets as well as air assets and when you put it all together Europe is providing the backbone to the force," he said.

"We're approaching this in three phases. The first phase, we would want to get in about 3,000 to 4,000 men very quickly, in the next few days or a week. And then we will have a second and a third phase to complete our deployment," Mr Annan added.

Mr Annan said that the European force offered the possibility of a "durable ceasefire and long-term solution" to the Middle East crisis.

Lebanese views on the aftermath of conflict

But our correspondent in Beirut says that with Hezbollah still firmly established across the border region and in no mood to give up its weapons, there is some scepticism about what an international force can achieve however tough its mandate.

And among Lebanese civilians in the south returning to houses damaged or destroyed, scepticism is mixed with resentment that it took the international community so long to bring the conflict to an end, he adds.

Lacklustre response

The discussions in Brussels come a day after France pledged 2,000 soldiers and offered to command the 15,000-strong UN force.

But Mr Chirac, giving a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told reporters that such a sizeable force was unnecessary: "I don't know who mentioned this figure but it doesn't really make sense.

"So what is the right number, 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000? I don't know."

HAVE YOUR SAY
The UN will never make any impact in the Middle East and it doesn't even try in places like Africa
Ken Cunningham
Newcastle, UK

The UN was disappointed by the initial response of European nations to its calls for troops to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended the conflict.

France was criticised last week after offering just 200 extra troops to help bolster Unifil.

The issue has been complicated by Israel's reluctance to accept troops from mainly Muslim states which do not have diplomatic relations with it.

In related developments:

  • Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov dismissed Israeli allegations that Hezbollah had been supplied with modern Russian weapons

  • An opinion poll by the independent Dahaf Institute suggested 63% of Israelis wanted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and a majority also wanted the defence minister and the military chief of staff to quit




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
How the peace force is coming together



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