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Last Updated: Monday, 16 July 2007, 09:03 GMT 10:03 UK
Hezbollah shadow over UN Lebanon troops
UN convoy
Unifil troops are meant to prevent Hezbollah bearing arms
Martin Asser has been reporting from Lebanon, a year after he covered the war between Hezbollah and Israel for the BBC News website. Here he examines the performance of the beefed-up UN peacekeeping operation.

Touring southern Lebanon these days, it is not long before you come across a convoy of white-painted vehicles from the UN peacekeeping force Unifil.

There may be just two or three soft-skinned vehicles, or it could be a long column including heavy armour, container trucks, ambulances and trucks full of peacekeepers in blue helmets, berets or turbans.

They trundle over the steep mountain passes and rolling plains between Israel and the Litani river, a visible sign of international determination to avoid another bloody conflict.

[Hezbollah are] everywhere, even here. If they wanted Unifil out, they'd be gone in two days
Christian resident of Ayn Ebl

Unifil was established in Lebanon 30 years ago, after Israel's first invasion, but had little impact on events - having no mandate to prevent attacks on Israel from Lebanon, or vice versa.

After the July 2006 war, the force received new orders and thousands of reinforcements under the ceasefire resolution 1701, which also stipulated the deployment of the Lebanese army in the area.

Previously the area had become the fiefdom of Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist and militant movement whose cross-border raid on 12 July - snatching two Israeli soldiers - was the catalyst for the 34-day conflict.

The post-conflict objective was for Unifil to help the Lebanese government extend its sovereignty to the southern frontier, so Hezbollah's armed wing would no longer be free to menace nearby Israeli towns or troops patrolling the border.

Ambush

Since last year, Unifil has been transformed from an observational force of just 2,000 soldiers to the current 13,600 battle-ready force, including a 2,000-strong naval component.

French peacekeepers
French peacekeepers are ready for trouble with their battle tanks

To Unifil's great satisfaction, under the new mandate, southern Lebanon has enjoyed its most stable and peaceful period in many years.

The most serious violation of the ceasefire has been against Unifil itself, when a roadside bomb killed three Spaniards and three Colombians from the Spanish peacekeeping force.

The perpetrators remain unidentified, but suspicion has fallen on al-Qaeda-linked Jihadists who have been causing mayhem in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

Three weeks later, Lebanese troops still seal off the long straight road at Dardara, between Khiyam and Marjayoun, where the attack happened, but from the roadblock you can still see the damage to the tarmac and surrounding trees and undergrowth.

South Lebanon is full of places like this, where the natural environment provides ample cover for ambushes, as the Israeli army discovered to its cost during its long occupation that ended in 2000.

Political links

Troops from the al-Tiri base near Bint Jbeil, headquarters of the French battalion, Unifil's third strongest after Italy and Spain, now always wear helmets and body armour when they go out on the road.

Capt Arnaud Rudelle hugged by an inhabitant of Ayn Ebl, South Lebanon
Peacekeepers receive a warm welcome from the Lebanese

Protective gear is only removed when they alight from their vehicles for village foot patrols.

"We were deeply affected by what happened to the Spanish battalion, but our mission is unaffected," says Capt Arnaud Rudelle. "We are soldiers and we will do whatever we must to fulfil it."

Like much of the south, most of the French operational area is strongly pro-Hezbollah.

Its yellow flags, martyr's posters and pictures of leader Hassan Nasrallah are everywhere - the exception being in the handful of Christian villages.

Capt Rudelle explains under the resolution 1701 it is not Unifil's responsibility to confront Hezbollah when the latter is performing its role a legitimate political party in Lebanon.

"Our job is to support the Lebanese army and see that there is no other armed activity in our area."

They are happy to establish links with community leaders, whether they are Hezbollah or not. The fact that the movement should hand over its weapons (under another UN resolution, 1559) is not Unifil's concern.

Popular sympathy

Unifil's popularity has not been harmed, with it becoming a major employer in this economically depressed area, with 1,000 local staff at its Naqqoura HQ alone, and supporting regeneration projects.

They were just babies, those young men who died. Shame... they didn't come here to be killed, they came to help us keep the peace
Resident of Khiyam on the recent killing of six Unifil soldiers

Ordinary civilians I spoke to in Hezbollah's heartlands say initial doubts about the new mandate have proved unfounded.

"At first we were unhappy, we thought it was just for Israel's protection, but now we see that is not so," said one resident in Khiyam.

The Dardara bombing had made people more sympathetic, she said.

"They were just babies, those young men who died. Ya haram (shame), they didn't come here to be killed, they came to help us keep the peace."

But the popular perception is clearly that the peacekeepers only remain with the tacit permission of Hezbollah's military wing.

Hezbollah fighters are masters of concealment and guerrilla warfare - their weapons were never on show before the war, so they are unlikely to be caught red-handed by Unifil or Lebanese troops now.

I spoke to a seasoned resident of the Christian village of Ayn Ebl - no friend of Hezbollah - who told me:

"They're everywhere, even here. If they wanted Unifil out, they'd be gone in two days," he said, snapping his fingers.




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