The size of the UN peackeeping force in Lebanon could be sharply reduced next year and its role downgraded to a purely observational one, a Western diplomat said Wednesday.
"UNIFIL (the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon), in its current format, has not got much further to go," the diplomat, familiar with UNIFIL's activities, told AFP. "Its size will be sharply reduced and its mission reviewed."
Though the peacekeepers have been in Lebanon since 1978, with their mandate renewed by the United Nations Security Council every six months, they only came into their own last May with the end of Israel's occupation.
The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it is almost certain that UNIFIL will not be pulled out when the next renewal comes up for a vote, but that the UN is likely to reduce the role of the force to one of observers only.
"One can imagine a force having no more than an observation role," with its forces "reduced to a thousand men" from a current level of 5,500.
The peacekeepers come from Fiji, Finland, France, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Nepal, Poland, Sweden and Ukraine.
Without raising the issue of a further renewal, next due in January, the Security Council on Tuesday told the Lebanese government that it must take control of the south of the country, a potential flashpoint between Israel and the Islamic Hezbollah movement.
In a statement, the council called for "an end to the dangerous violations that have continued on the 'blue line'" -- the line marked by UN troops to certify the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon in May.
Since the Israeli pullout after 22 years of occupying southern Lebanon, the Lebanese government has repeatedly refused to deploy troops along its border with the Jewish state.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said "there is still a state of alert on the border, which remains tense, particularly in the Shebaa farms region," which was taken by Israel from Syria in 1967 but is claimed by Lebanon.
Barak recalled Israel's frequently stated position that the Syrian and Lebanese governments were responsible for calm and stability on the border.
In a report to the council on November 1, Annan warned that Lebanon was in danger of becoming "an arena, albeit not necessarily the only one, of conflict between others."
Peter van Walsum, the Dutch ambassador to the UN who holds the Security Council presidency this month, said on Tuesday that UNIFIL will be reduced in size in the future, rather than enlarged -- BEIRUT (AFP)
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