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UN warns of ‘security vacuum’ in Lebanon *

The Age | 23 August, 2006

It could take three months to fill the post-war “security vacuum” in southern Lebanon and even unintended breaches of the truce could reignite fighting between Israel and Hizbollah, the United Nations said.

“The situation is still extremely fragile,” senior UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen told Reuters in an interview in Jerusalem. “Unintended incidents can kick off renewed violence, which might escalate and spin out of control.”

The Norwegian was speaking as the United Nations tried to drum up support for a force of 15,000 soldiers to maintain a truce in southern Lebanon after the 34-day war between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas, which ended eight days ago.

European Union president Finland called a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers for Friday in Brussels to discuss pledges of troops, which have so far been meagre. European participation is seen as vital if the UN is to get an advance party of 3,500 troops on the ground by Sept 2 as planned.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is expected to attend the talks and then fly on to the Middle East, although UN sources said his plans were not yet set in stone.

Among the few European nations to have made significant troop pledges is Italy, although its promise of 2,000-3,000 soldiers – about a third of the expected European contribution – is dependent on Israel holding to the terms of the truce.

“From Israel, we expect a renewed effort, this time truly binding, to respect the ceasefire,” Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema told La Repubblica newspaper.

“It’s fair to expect that Hizbollah put down their weapons, but we cannot send our troops to Lebanon if the (Israeli) army keeps shooting.”

The UN-backed truce was shaken by an Israeli commando raid in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on Saturday, which the UN deemed a ceasefire violation.

The New York-based body says it is also concerned by six Israeli violations of Lebanese air space in the past two days.

Israel says Saturday’s raid was a defensive action and, as such, does not constitute a breach of UN Security Council resolution 1701, which brought the war to an end.

The Jewish state has accused Hizbollah of violating the resolution by smuggling arms from Syria and has said its jets need to fly over Lebanon to counter such activities.

D’Alema also said the Italians would be supported by the Dutch, among others, although the Dutch Foreign Ministry stressed the Netherlands would not send ground troops due to its commitments in Afghanistan and Africa.

“The minister has said that if people come knocking on our door asking for help it will not be slammed in their face,” a Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman said, adding that his government might send maritime assistance.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said on Monday he had told Annan his country was willing to command the force and that Annan would make a decision by this weekend.

The 15,000 UN troops are due to work alongside a similar number of Lebanese soldiers already deploying in the south, but the UN’s Roed-Larson conceded it would be a while before the force is fully operational.

“Realistically, up to a point, you will have such a vacuum in Lebanon for the next two, three months,” he said.

Italy’s D’Alema held out hope that France might reconsider its offer of only 200 troops. It had originally been expected to contribute at least 2,000.

But a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said France had “no reason to blush” over its commitment to Lebanon.

Hizbollah has accepted the deployment of UN and Lebanese troops in its south Lebanese stronghold, but has not promised to leave the area or to dismantle its arsenal of rockets.

Nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed during the war that erupted after Hizbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

The Lebanese army has deployed around 2,000 troops along the Syrian border to prevent arms smuggling to Hizbollah and has moved deep into the shattered south.

Israel says its troops will not pull out fully until extra UN soldiers arrive. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said stationing some of the international force at border crossings with Syria and at Beirut airport would also enable Israel to lift its blockade, according to a statement issued by his office.

Israel’s failure to land a knock-out blow to Hizbollah has increased pressure on Olmert.

Hundreds of reservists, back from fierce fighting in southern Lebanon, have launched protests and called for a broad investigation into the handling of the war. Some have demanded the resignations of Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz.

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