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Europe Hesitant on Lebanon Peacekeepers

August 21, 2006

ROME (AP) _ Europe’s hesitancy about sending peacekeepers to Lebanon has again cast it as a continent that can’t take united action, analysts say.

With the United States viewed by many as too closely allied to Israel, Europe is uniquely positioned to take the lead to help end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants. But so far, no European countries have stepped up with a large contribution of troops.

``When the time comes to take off, great Europe slinks away,″ said an editorial on the front page of Rome newspaper La Repubblica.

``Of course one could see this as an opportunity for the EU to act, but the whole run-up to the war shows Europe’s weakness in security and defense matters,″ said Jan Joel Andersson, program director at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

``When things heat up, the countries act according to their own interests and the European unity quickly falls apart,″ Andersson added.

A U.N. cease-fire resolution has authorized up to 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help an equal number of Lebanese troops extend their authority into south Lebanon, which has been controlled by Hezbollah, as Israel withdraws its soldiers.

The U.N. wants 3,500 troops on the ground by next Monday.

But a key worry for many countries is whether the force will be called on to disarm Hezbollah fighters, as called for in a September 2004 U.N. resolution. Analysts also said the latest cease-fire resolution is unclear and open to interpretation.

``Europe has an aversion to sending troops to places where long-term stability is not ensured,″ said Jana Hybaskova, the European Parliament’s main expert on the Middle East. ``There is a major difference between peacekeeping and peace enforcing, and peace enforcing is something the Europeans may not be so keen on.″

Italy on Friday endorsed sending peacekeeping troops to Lebanon, but did not commit itself to specific numbers. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by phone with Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema on Sunday and encouraged Italy to seek a ``strong role″ in the peace force, the foreign ministry said.

France’s Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told French radio France Info on Sunday that he had asked Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the 25-member bloc, to call a meeting of EU diplomats in Brussels this week to ``find out as rapidly as possible what the different European partners plan to do concerning Lebanon.″

France, which commands the existing force U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL, had been expected to make a significant new contribution that would form the backbone of the expanded force. But Chirac disappointed the U.N. and other countries last week by merely doubling France’s contingent of 200 troops.

Douste-Blazy indicated more could be sent later, once the U.N. has clarified the mandate of the force, including the rules of engagement.

Germany said it would not send troops, but will offer naval forces to help patrol the country’s coastline. With their country’s Nazi-era past in mind, German officials have expressed concern about deploying German troops in any situation that might bring them into confrontation with Israeli soldiers.

Finland said it would send up to 250 peacekeepers to Lebanon, but said they would not be deployed until November. Turkey has indicated it will contribute troops but wants to study the forces’ mandate before making any decisions.

Spain has discussed sending troops but is yet to make a concrete offer and Austria, the Czech Republic and Switzerland have made no offer at all.

``It’s pretty self-evident that nobody wants to send troops if they think they are going to have to do peacemaking rather than peacekeeping, or if they think they are going to get caught in the crossfire,″ said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank. ``And given how many French soldiers died in Lebanon in the ’80s, I think that kind of reluctance is understandable.″

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said Friday more European nations are needed for the vanguard force of 3,500 troops that the U.N. wants on the ground by next Monday to help ensure a truce in south Lebanon.

``It’s very important now that Europe steps forward,″ he said.

At a meeting last week of 49 potential troop-contributing nations, the only countries to offer mechanized infantry battalions, which will be the front line of the expanded force, were three Muslim countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel _ Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia _ and Nepal, which is predominantly Hindu.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that countries which don’t have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state should not participate in the force, further complicating the effort.

Analysts blame Europe’s weak response in part on France’s unexpectedly meager offer.

As leader of the UNIFIL force in Lebanon, France had a critical role to play, said Michael Kerr, an expert in Lebanese politics at the London School of Economics.

``Whatever France does will create confidence _ or vice versa,″ he said. Its disappointing contribution ``sends the message that the French have grave concerns about the stability of the cease-fire.″

Grant, of the Center for European Reform, said Europe’s slow response was reasonable.

``I don’t think the fact that Europeans are unwilling to send forces unless certain conditions are met means they’re wimpish or not in favor of a European defense policy or foreign policy. It just means they’re being prudent and sensible,″ he said.

``I think there’s going to have to be a peace to be kept, or nobody _ Europeans or anybody _ is going to want to send troops.″

___

Associated Press writers Paul Ames and Jan Sliva in Brussels, Raphael Satter in London, David McHugh in Berlin and Karl Ritter in Stockholm, contributed to this story.

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