Talks Continue on Lebanon Truce, Troops

Almost two weeks after promising to send 15,000 troops to southern Lebanon, the United Nations is still trying to cobble together a peacekeeping force. Robert Siegel talks with Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. Special Envoy for implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Terje Roed-Larsen, the Norwegian diplomat, is the U.N.'s mediator in the Middle East. He's joining us from Berlin. Ambassador Larsen, it seems as though the Europeans are very reluctant to commit troops to a peacekeeping force until they know there's a truce; and the Israelis seem reluctant to commit to a complete truce until they know that Lebanon's borders are secured; and the Lebanese seem to be unable to secure their borders without the help of some international force. It sounds like you're in a pickle.

TERJE ROED: Yeah. There is a dilemma, as you are pointing out. The concerns of some potential troop contributors are legitimate, because unless there are proper political underpinnings for any truce - and of course this also goes for Lebanon - there will be a vulnerable security situation.

SIEGEL: A word that gained much currency to describe the new troops that will be going to southern Lebanon was robust. And I wonder if you could describe for us a bit of what the robust mission will be? For example, in the recent fighting, U.N. peacekeepers were hit. Would a new force going in be able to either fire back or to dispel Hezbollah fighters who might be launching rockets from near their base? Either way, would they have that right to use force?

LARSEN: I think robust, first and foremost, refers to two dimensions. One is the number of troops and, for the moment, UNIFIL - the old unit, so to speak - has 2,000 troops, about. The goal now is to raise this level to 15,000 and this is a part of the definition of robust.

The second element is that the rules of engagement are so, that the peacekeepers can use force in order to enforce what they're mandated.

SIEGEL: But does that mean that they could use force against either an Israeli commando unit that came across the border, or a truck they believe was resupplying a Hezbollah position with missiles coming in from another country.

LARSEN: The first instance would be completely outside of the mandate of such a troop. There is no Security Council resolution which imposes an arms embargo in Lebanon and such force would have as its obligation to report any violation of this particular Security Council resolution.

SIEGEL: Would you expect peacekeepers to go in, the new UNIFIL force, to go in and actively look for, say, Hezbollah arms caches still in the south or would they be more passive and leave that sort of thing either to the Lebanese army or someone else?

LARSEN: Of course, I mean, if this force saw that there was a breach, a violation of the resolution, it would have to be reported immediately.

SIEGEL: When you urged Israeli leaders, or spoke with them about lifting the blockade of Lebanon, what did they say to you and how hopeful are you of a lifting of the blockade?

LARSEN: Seen with Israeli eyes, the lifting of the blockade is critically dependent on an effective arms embargo in Lebanon. So, with Israeli eyes, the blockade will be lifted when there are efficient controls of the airport, the seaports and the land-crossings on Lebanon's borders. What we tried to impress on the behalf of the secretary general - in meetings for the last two days with the prime minister of Israel and the foreign minister and the minister for defense - is that we are convinced that the government of Lebanon now has control over the passenger terminal at the airport in Beirut and we've strongly urged the government to Israel to lift the blockade at the airport.

SIEGEL: And at sea? At the ports?

LARSEN: We are also urging them to lift the whole blockade but we are on a parallel basis working with the government of Lebanon in order to urge them to put into place systems which can secure this arms embargo.

SIEGEL: In your judgment, is the government of Lebanon without a more robust U.N. force in the country, capable of securing its own borders?

LARSEN: Maybe, but the situation is that it will be in a much better position to do this with the assistance of a robust peacekeeping force, and this is precisely why the Security Council has decided to try to put such a force into place, working hand-in-hand with the Lebanese armed forces and other security forces.

SIEGEL: Well, before I let you go I'm going to ask you to just say something for people who follow the news and wonder whether we're on the slippery slope toward a resumption of fighting in southern Lebanon, if not a larger regional conflict, to say something encouraging that you've heard over the past week of negotiations in the Middle East.

LARSEN: I think first and foremost what is encouraging, is that there is a real and serious effort by the government of Lebanon in order to secure its border and to deploy troops in the south so that the government of Lebanon is capable of exercising authority over all its territory with the goal of having one government, one gun, and one law in that country, and not having guns in the hands of a variety of militias. This is encouraging.

SIEGEL: Terje Roed-Larsen, U.N. envoy to the Middle East, speaking to us from Berlin. Thank you very much for talking with us.

LARSEN: Thank you, always a pleasure being with you.

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