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Israel backs Lebanon security force plan

Written by: Staff

JERUSALEM, July 23 (Reuters) Israel will support the deployment of a temporary international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to ensure Hizbollah is removed from its border, Defence Minister Amir Peretz said today.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had initially brushed aside the proposed peacekeeping force as premature.

It is unclear exactly what role a stabilisation force would play and when it could be deployed given the heavy fighting. It would be virtually impossible to send foreign troops in without Hizbollah's consent.

The guerrilla group declined to comment on proposals for a new peacekeeping force, but has in the past expressed reservations even about existing U.N. peacekeepers in south Lebanon.

''Due to the weakness of the Lebanese army, we support the deployment in the south (of Lebanon) of a multi-national force with broad authority,'' Peretz told German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

A Defence Ministry spokeswoman said Peretz told the minister that the international force should be given ''enforcing authority in southern Lebanon temporarily until the Lebanese army can deploy and operate effectively''.

Peretz suggested the force would be led by NATO and John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Washington was open to the idea of a NATO-led force.

A NATO official said there has been no discussion until now of any role by the alliance, citing efforts to expand an existing U.N.

force rather than create a new one.

NATO FORCE DOUBTFUL Steinmeier expressed scepticism about a NATO mission during his meeting with Peretz and said it did not seem likely, a participant in the meeting said.

Israel has sharply criticised the existing U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon as a ''failure''.

Western diplomats said Israel was seeking assurances from European powers that the international force would be given a clear mandate and sufficient firepower to keep Hizbollah out of a yet-to-be-defined security zone along the Lebanese border.

Israel was also seeking commitments that Hizbollah would be prevented from re-arming and that the Lebanese army, with international help, would begin to disarm the guerrilla group.

''We want them disarmed but we understand that will take time,'' an Israeli government source said.

Ministers from France, Germany and Britain discussed details of the proposed force with Israeli officials today.

U.N. sources said France and Turkey were high on the list for leading such a force while Italy, Greece and Brazil had expressed willingness to join.

A European diplomat, close to the deliberations, said Israel had come round to the idea of a force because it realises it can neither crush Hizbollah nor reoccupy southern Lebanon.

In addition to a new peacekeeping force, Western powers are considering stationing international monitors at Lebanese border crossings and ports to try to prevent Hizbollah from bringing in rockets to replace those that have been destroyed by Israel.

''It's not a peacekeeping mission. It's a peacemaking mission because the mandate would be to forcefully disarm Hizbollah against their will,'' said John Pike, director of the security Web site GlobalSecurity.org. ''The question is, which country has the political will to fight that war?'' Israeli attacks aimed at Hizbollah have killed some 359 Lebanese since the guerrilla group captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12. A total of 37 Israelis have died, 17 of them civilians killed by Hizbollah rockets.

Reuters MQA DB2127

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