to commit biggest force in its history to "keep the peace"
The European Union is to mount the
biggest military operation in its history after agreeing yesterday to
commit more than 7,000 ground troops for a United Nations mission policing
the Israel-Lebanon ceasefire.
Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, in Brussels to cajole hesitant countries, expressed his delight and said that more than half of the proposed 15,000-strong peacekeeping force was now in place.
At a press conference, he said: "Europe is providing the backbone of the force." He added the force would be able to deploy "in days, not weeks".
Its willingness to commit troops demonstrates that the EU is capable of military deployments independent of the US. It also answers criticism from Washington that Europe is happy to engage in diplomacy but unwilling to put boots on the ground. As well as the 2,000 troops promised by the French president, Jacques Chirac, on Thursday, Italy committed 3,000, Spain up to 1,200, including a mechanised battalion, Belgium 400, Poland 500 and Finland 250.
Britain, Germany, Greece and Denmark offered to contribute to the 2,000 specialist forces. Britain, which was represented at the meeting by the Europe minister, Geoff Hoon, will provide six Jaguar aircraft, two AWACS reconnaissance planes and a frigate or destroyer, and offer the use of its air and naval base on Cyprus.
The Irish government said it could not help out with the initial deployment but could provide help later.
The plan confirmed in Brussels is to have 4,000 troops - mainly a mixture of French and Italians - deployed in Lebanon by next week, with the others to follow by November.
Following the Brussels meeting Mr Annan flew to the Middle East to discuss outstanding problems with the Lebanese and Israeli governments, as well as Iran and Syria, ahead of the full deployment.
Two potential flashpoints with Israel immediately arose when Mr Annan made it plain that the UN force, despite Iraeli demands, would not disarm Hizbullah, saying this was a matter for the Lebanese, and would only police the Lebanon border with Syria if asked by the Lebanese government, which he said had made no such request.
The UN security council agreed a ceasefire resolution a fortnight ago for a 15,000-strong detachment of the Lebanese army in the south of the country supported by a 15,000-strong UN force. Mr Annan said that 15,000 remained his goal, even though Mr Chirac had earlier suggested that the figure was "quite excessive".
Outside the EU, Turkey, China, Nepal, New Zealand and other countries are considering offering troops. Israel is opposed to troops pledged by Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, predominantly Muslim countries with which it has no diplomatic ties. The Israeli government argues their refusal to recognise its existence could mean troops would be biased against it, and would also make liaison impossible on issues such as sharing intelligence.
But Mr Annan said yesterday he had received "firm commitments" from these countries.
"It is vital that we deploy strong, credible and robust forces," Mr Annan said. "In today's world there is lots of competition for troops and there's no pool sitting in barracks. They can be deployed in a manner which does not produce tensions among the protogonists or which does not require contact with the Israelis."
The secretary-general joined forces with Javier Solana, the EU's head of foreign and security policy, in demanding that Israel lift its blockade of Lebanese ports and Beirut airport at once to enable the peacekeeping forces to fulfil their mission and to allow the reconstruction of the country to begin and humanitarian aid to flow.
The Europeans are taking a considerable risk, with the ever-present danger of a strike by Israel or confrontation with Hizbullah, and a renewal of fighting with their forces caught in the middle. The EU's previous biggest operation was taking over from Nato in Bosnia in 2004: there is a 6,500-strong EU force in place.
The US is unable to contribute, partly because it is overextended elsewhere but mainly because of an unwillingness to re-engage in a country in which it lost 241 servicemen in 1983, its biggest single military loss in a day since the Second World War.
France and Italy, the two biggest troop contributors, appear to have resolved who will command the force. The UN troops on the ground will continue to be led by a French commander until the end of February when an Italian will take over.
In what was hailed as a breakthrough, the chain of command has been shortened so the UN troops' leadership will be answerable to an Italian general based in a special "cell" at UN headquarters in New York.
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