The vulnerability of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was again highlighted Thursday as clashes in southern Lebanon escalated ahead of the scheduled Israeli pullout by July 7.
A Fijian soldier was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel from a shell at the Hamra control post on the edge of the western sector of the Israeli-occupied zone, and a Katyusha rocket fell just 50 meters (yards) from headquarters of the Indian contingent of the UN force at Ibl as-Saqi, to the east and well within the zone.
The missiles fell as artillery duels raged between members of the Hizbollah and militiamen of the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army (SLA).
"It is difficult to know if what we had here was stray shells or rockets at either end of the territory where the peacekeepers are deployed, or whether these incidents should be interpreted as a warning message to the United Nations," a western diplomat told AFP.
UNIFIL was established in 1978 as part of UN Security Council Resolution 425 which called for an Israeli withdrawal from all Lebanese territory, and was given the task of "restoring international peace and security", but the same diplomat described it as "no more than a force to keep the peace, lacking any realistic means of enforcement."
"For 22 years, UNIFIL has not had the means to defend itself. When there is trouble, it is forced to climb into a hole and wait for it to pass," he added.
"If the security council does not ... increase its numbers and change its rules of engagement, giving it the authority to return fire, UNIFIL will always be helpless in the face of serious incidents like the one in Qana in 1996," he said, referring to the Israeli shelling of a UN position which killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians who had taken refuge there.
Another diplomat said: "If you want UNIFIL to carry out its mission seriously, you must equip it, for example, with modern artillery with anti-artillery radar and aerial back-up."
A military expert agreed that UNIFIL must be strengthened, but pointed out that "time is short", as Israel has already begun its retreat, moving military equipment, dismantling positions, and handing others over to its SLA allies.
UNIFIL currently has 4,500 soldiers from nine countries -- Fiji, Finland, France, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Nepal and Poland.
Ireland has said it is prepared to send a further 50 men to reinforce its existing battalion of 535 troops, but they will only get there around the third week of June and the Dublin government still has to give its final accord.
Denmark said Thursday it was ready in principle to put 345 soldiers at the disposal of the United Nations, including 80 from its engineer corps, a decision to be confirmed in about two weeks.
France which currently has only 200 troops with UNIFIL, mainly handling logistics, has said it is ready to play a significant role, but has still not come to any conclusion.
After the Israeli withdrawal, UNIFIL's task will be further complicated by its need to prevent members of Hizbollah and the SLA from settling scores.
Three SLA militiamen have already been shot dead in the past few months in punishment raids by Hizbollah, which has spearheaded the resistance to the Israelis.
Terje Roed-Larsen, the special Middle East envoy of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, was recently in the area gathering information on the problems likely to arise in implementing the UN resolutions on Lebanon. His report will be the basis for the Security Council's discussion of the issue.
Any decision it takes will need agreement from Lebanon, which is far from secured, and Syria, which has 35,000 of its own troops stationed in the country, has been reserved about the future of the UN force.
However, in an apparent change of policy earlier this month it was party to a statement issued jointly with Egypt and Saudi Arabia stressing the need for UNIFIL troops to be able to "fulfill the mission they have been tasked with."
The United Nations welcomed the statement as "unconditional support" for its role -- TYRE, Lebanon, (AFP)
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