Lebanese army gets ready for deployment in south as contacts over UN force continue
Foreign ministers of France, Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia were due to arrive in Beirut on Wednesday to work out details on assembling a 15,000-strong international force to oversee peacekeeping efforts in Lebanon. According to A Nahar newspaper, the force would work with an equal number of Lebanese troops to implement the cease-fire that started Monday morning and ended 34 days of clashes.
The diplomatic moves came as the Israeli army had started withdrawing part of its troops from south Lebanon while Lebanese troops planned to start moving across the Litani River on Thursday in an attempt to take control of the war-ravaged region from Hizbullah fighters.
Lebanese troops on Wednesday worked on rebuilding bridges and roads and gathering equipment ahead of deployment in south Lebanon, a senior military official told AFP. The official added that the bridges were being rebuilt and equipment gathered just north of the Litani River, awaiting government approval for a deployment up to the border with Israel.
The U.N. hopes 3,500 well-equipped international troops can reinforce the U.N. contingent within 10 to 15 days to help consolidate the fragile cessation of hostilities and create the conditions for Israeli forces to head home, Assistant U.N. Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hedi Annabi said.
France was expected to lead the international force. The Italian foreign minister has already visited Beirut and subsequently pledged as many as 3,000 troops. Indonesia and a dozen other countries have also expressed a willingness to help.
The 2,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL that has been in south Lebanon for over two decades was to temporarily take up positions along the border.
On his part, a senior Israeli officer said Wednesday morning that the Israeli army may be forced to stay in south Lebanon for months until the deployment of an international force. "The deployment of UNIFIL troops in south Lebanon is likely to take several months. It is not clear exactly how many. Until then, IDF forces will be forced to stay in the field," the senior officer was quoted as saying by Haaretz newspaper.