The Lebanese government is to send 500 army troops to the south of the country, lifting an obstacle to the reinforcement of the United Nations peacekeeping force in the region recently evacuated by Israel.
The official National Information Agency (ANI) reported late Friday that a joint force of 500 troops and 500 police will be based in the two main towns of the former Israeli-occupied zone, Marjayoun and Bint Jbail, and be responsible to Interior Minister Michel Murr.
Their job would be to perform unspecified "security tasks", ANI said, adding that the details of the deployment would be agreed at a special cabinet meeting next week. It did not say if the troops would patrol right up to the border with Israel.
It will be the first time the military has been deployed in the south since the army split in 1976 as Lebanon crumbled into civil war. The Israeli occupation came two years later.
Lebanon has been under pressure internationally, notably from France, the United States and the United Nations, to send troops to the south, but Prime Minister Salim Hoss has shown reluctance to do so.
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, who is to visit Israel, Lebanon and Syria this weekend, has made it a condition for boosting France's 250-strong contingent in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which is currently verifying Israel's departure from the south.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has also asked for "assurances" to enable UNIFIL to step up its commitment to Lebanon.
The Security Council is to decide in a few weeks whether to renew, and possibly modify the force's mandate, which is due to expire at the end of July.
Beirut has already stationed nearly 1,300 police and gendarmes in the south since the Israelis pulled out on May 24, and Hoss said Friday that they could call on the military for assistance if necessary.
The Lebanese authorities had previously said that they wanted to wait until the UN had officially certified that the Israelis had withdrawn to the agreed international border before deploying the military.
They also said they did not want to act as "Israel's border guards" when Israel has yet to sign a peace agreement with Lebanon and Syria, the power-broker in Beirut.
Vedrine, due in Beirut late Sunday, is expected to indicate if the Lebanese gesture in sending in 500 troops out of a total army of some 47,000 will satisfy Paris.
France's decision on whether or not to increase its UNIFIL contingent -- the figure of 600 extra men has been mentioned -- is considered vital in influencing other countries to contribute to the peacekeeping force.
"Our conditions are logical and unmistakable," Vedrine told the weekly Nouvel Observateur this week.
"Whatever our historical links with Lebanon and our permanent desire for peace in the Middle East, neither the president nor the prime minister are ready to send French troops without a clear mission into a situation which could become uncontrollable."
A question mark still hangs over the Syrian-backed Hizbollah militia, whose guerrilla campaign finally convinced Israel it was not worth staying in Lebanon, and which is now in control of much of the south.
In an interview published Thursday in the Wall Street Journal Hoss said there were no plans to disarm Hizbollah.
"This is not a subject we'd like to broach at this time," he added -- BEIRUT (AFP)
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