Mon, 24 Apr 2000

Future of UN force in Lebanon up in the air

By Pascal Mallet

BEIRUT (AFP): The future of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon is up in the air as the planned pullout by Israeli troops in the south of the country by July 7 looms, diplomatic sources said.

"The UNIFIL of the future, if it is indeed to have one, will be different. It is not even sure that it will stay on," a western diplomat told AFP, as the force's mandate comes up for its regular six-monthly renewal in July.

"If UNIFIL is to stay, everyone has got to want it to, that is to say the countries of the region -- Lebanon and Israel -- on the one hand and the members of the Security Council on the other," he said.

UNIFIL -- the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon -- was set up on the basis of UN Security Council Resolutions 425 and 426 in 1978 and now has 4,500 troops from nine countries (Fiji, Finland, France, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Nepal and Poland).

"Furthermore, UNIFIL, as it is now, does not have the means to maintain order in southern Lebanon, as we have seen since 1978," he said.

"It is not a force designed to impose peace as was the case for the UN troops in Bosnia, but simply to uphold the peace, a peace that has never existed," he added.

"UNIFIL must have its role accepted, its mandate and rules of engagement reviewed, and its make-up modified," particularly with the agreement of Lebanon, which has so far not made its position known officially on these points.

"Things have to be made clear from the start: the United Nations will only agree to play a role if conditions are worked out with the regional countries concerned and that is precisely the problem," he went on.

Nabih Berri, Lebanon's parliament speaker and leader of the pro-Syrian Shiite movement Amal -- one of the groups spearheading resistance to the Israeli occupation -- said April 16 Beirut was against any change in UNIFIL's mandate.

The crunch will come on July 15 when the UN Security Council has to decide on the basis of a report by Secretary General Kofi Annan on the situation in southern Lebanon whether UNIFIL's mandate should be extended, the diplomat explained.

The peacekeepers have been reduced to standing by and watching Israeli troops pass through to carry out their operations in Lebanon since the 1980's, and watching Lebanese or Palestinian guerrilla attacks on Israeli soldiers and their South Lebanon Army allies.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud sent a memorandum to Annan April 5, asking about the mandate and casting doubt on the ability of a multinational force to reestablish security following a unilateral withdrawal by the Israelis.

He asked whether such a body would be able to deal with security problems linked to the presence of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who might carry out cross border raids against Israel as long as their own future was not addressed, and what the force would do in the case of any future attack by Israel.

"The questions raised by the Lebanese head of state demonstrate a skepticism, justified or not, about this force. If the Beirut government, with backing from Syria, only gives the United Nations the right to fill the gap left by the departure of the Israeli troops, it would be better for it to leave," said the diplomat.

"All this is to be discussed by the UN Security Council and the countries concerned must quickly make their positions clear," he added, noting that the Israelis have talked of pulling out of southern Lebanon as early as June.