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Hope, cynicism shadows U.N. peacekeepers

By TODD PITMAN, Associated Press Writer | Sun Aug 27 | Yahoo News

MARWAHEEN, Lebanon – It was the fourth day of the war, and an Israeli army loudspeaker boomed a warning across the border to this village: “You have two hours to leave.”

Panicked people sought refuge at a U.N. peacekeeping post on the edge of town. But they were turned away, and 23 villagers, most of them women, children and the elderly, died in an Israeli artillery barrage that hit their convoy fleeing Marwaheen.

“If the U.N. had let us inside, maybe we would have been safe,” said Zeinab Abdallah, 19, who lost her father and other relatives in the July 15 barrage. “Maybe things would have been different.”

The feelings in Marwaheen about U.N. troops are not isolated. Across southern Lebanon, people have doubts about what they consider a weak U.N. force that has been here for decades.
Its 2,000 peacekeepers have largely been bystanders in a region where Hezbollah’s Shiite Muslim guerrillas are dug in deep, where residents endured an 18-year Israeli occupation and where the latest Israeli offensive left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them Lebanese.

The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, is to expand to 15,000 soldiers as part of a deal to ensure fighting doesn’t flare anew, and European nations pledged 6,900 Friday. A convoy of newly arrived French trucks carrying equipment rolled down Lebanon’s southern coast Saturday night toward the mission’s headquarters in Naqoura.

UNIFIL spokesman Alexander Ivanko said the backbone of reinforcements — 3,000 to 4,000 U.N. troops — would likely be deployed within a week. Only about 200 French soldiers have arrived so far for the force, which is paid for out of the U.N. budget financed by member states.

Many Lebanese welcome the beefed-up force, yet few hold out much hope it will keep the peace.

“What has the U.N. ever done to protect us?” asked Abu Qassan, a 36-year-old Shiite tobacco farmer in Aita al-Shaab, standing next to a couple dozen homes that were battered by artillery and airstrikes and then bulldozed by Israeli troops. “Only we can defend ourselves. Only Hezbollah can defend us.”

The war began July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border at Aita al-Shaab, killed three Israeli soldiers and seized two others.

The raid provoked a fierce onslaught from Israel, which pounded Hezbollah strongholds as well as Lebanon’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure, including the international airport in Beirut. Large sections of southern Lebanon and whole neighborhoods south of Beirut are in ruins.

People in the border town of Naqoura also had a run-in with U.N. peacekeepers during the war. Ordered out by Israeli troops, hundreds went to the U.N. compound in town. Peacekeepers refused to let them in, but the crowd forced its way inside and stayed for two days before traveling to Tyre.

Ivanko declined to speculate why U.N. forces turned civilians back in Naqoura and Marwaheen, saying he was not in Lebanon at the time.

Some Christians, a minority in the predominantly Shiite Muslim south, have more faith in the U.N. troops.

One woman who gave her name only as Dagher, fearing possible retribution from Shiites in Naqoura, said the U.N. post in that town didn’t have the resources to sustain hundreds of refugees.

She said the post commander did what he could — hanging up U.N. tarps and flags around the compound, including in a nearby parking lot, in a bid to extend the safe area to whomever needed it. U.N. troops escorted convoys of civilian vehicles north along the coast to safer areas.

Another resident said Indian peacekeepers had treated the sick and wounded.

“We want them to come. We want more of them,” Dagher said of the U.N. troops. “It’s volatile enough as it is. Having more peacekeepers will make things safer.”

There is a second, smaller U.N. force in Lebanon, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, which as the world body’s first peacekeeping mission was started in 1948 after the Mideast war over Israel’s creation.

Its 250 observers and civilian staff have several posts in the region, and like UNIFIL have often watched war but not stopped it.

One white-walled UNTSO post, surrounded by barbed wire and pockmarked from artillery fire, sits on a hill overlooking the Israeli border from the Lebanese town of Maroun el-Ras.

The observers didn’t need their huge binoculars to monitor the latest fighting. The Israeli army smashed nearly every house around their post. Two multistory houses directly in front of the U.N. building were flattened.

“All they do is count the number of bombs going over their heads,” said Qassan, the farmer in Aita al-Shaab. “What good is that? For anything to change, they have to change their mandate.”

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday that peacekeepers would keep out of the touchiest aspects of the cease-fire: Israel’s call for disarming Hezbollah and stopping weapons smuggling along Lebanon’s border with Syria, which supports the guerrillas.

Annan said both matters are the responsibility of the Lebanese army, a poorly equipped force also disdained by many Lebanese after it did little during the fighting.

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