French Contribution to U.N. Force Disappoints
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
United Nations representatives gathered in New York today to discuss the makeup of an international military force to patrol southern Lebanon. France says it will double the size of its troop presence there from 200 to 400 peacekeepers. That's far less than what the UN was hoping for to help enforce the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
A UN public affairs officer called the French offer a good first step. Nick Birnback says it's important for the west to contribute to substantial numbers of troops.
Mr. NICK BIRNBACK (Public Affairs Officer, UN): Western militaries simply are able to do things and to move faster. They have these enabling capabilities and these specialized capacities that developing militaries simply don't have. And given the complex tasks they're being asked to perform by the Security Council, it's basically everyone's perspective that it would be a good idea to have the core of the force be made up of these highly competent forces as the glue that binds the larger force together.
BLOCK: Joining us to talk about the UN's efforts to get more peacekeepers to Lebanon is NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.
And Michele, this seems like a pretty big turnabout. The whole idea was that France was going to be taking command of these forces in Lebanon, having the most number of troops. What happened?
MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:
Well, UN officials are wondering what happened as well. It's not the leading force that UN officials were hoping for. President Chirac's office - Jacques Chirac of France - issued this statement today after he spoke to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. And he said that France would send immediately these 200 additional peacekeepers, joining the 200 that are already there on the ground in the UN force. And Chirac did leave open the door for more troops. He said that he would keep 1700 troops stationed in the region that could be available to the UN but not under UN command.
That's something that UN officials said they're comfortable with and that was part of negotiations leading up to this. But UN officials that I spoke with today said they're very worried about the signal France is sending by just sending 200 troops and not the several thousand that were expected. They're really worried that this is going to have a chilling effect on their whole effort to get a more robust force in place.
BLOCK: And they're going to need to find thousands more troops to bolster this force to the level it was supposed to be. What other countries were sending representatives to that UN meeting today and might they contribute to the force?
KELEMEN: Well, dozens of countries sent representatives to this meeting, but we haven't heard many concrete offers. Italy has said it's likely to send a few thousand, a couple of thousand troops, though the Italians really want to get a sense of the rules of engagement. That's what this meeting is about today. Turkey is another likely contributor. Germany has said it would help, though it won't send combat troops to the south. You have Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco as all possibilities.
And Mark Malek Brown, who's the UN's number two official, opened this meeting today with really strong appeal, saying, you know, please give us an answer within days. Though we recognize that this meeting was really going to be more about answering questions and concerns from all the potential troop contributors.
BLOCK: And a couple of those countries you mentioned, Israel has objections to their being a part of this force.
KELEMEN: That's right. And that will be an issue as well.
BLOCK: What is the force supposed to be doing in southern Lebanon that's different from the role of UNIFIL that's there now?
KELEMEN: The previous mandate was really a monitoring force monitoring this buffer zone. This one's supposed to be much more robust, as they like to say, much larger. The UN Security Council said it's supposed to grow from 2,000 to 15,000. It's supposed to help the Lebanese armed forces move into southern Lebanon, create a new buffer zone.
The Security Council resolution authorized the force - not to disarm Hezbollah. That's going to be the job of the Lebanese armed forces, but obviously it's going to have to help in that, and that's going to be a real issue of concern. Malek Brown described it this way, he said it's going to be robust but not an offensive force.
BLOCK: This seems to be taking, as things at the UN often do, a lot of time to work out, and it does seem like on the ground there's movement already despite what the UN is doing.
KELEMEN: That's right. The UN is now proposing a sort of vanguard force that's going to go in earlier. Malek Brown was talking about 3,500 troops to move in within the next 10 to 15 days. But again, you have to get countries to agree to this.
BLOCK: NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks very much.
KELEMEN: You're welcome.