By Alaa Shahine
BEIRUT – France will greatly increase the size of the contingent it is promising for a peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, possibly making it easier to recruit other nations, officials and diplomats said on Thursday.
Italy said it ha
d won U.S. blessing for its leadership of the force and that it was confident Europe, especially France, would firm up its so far limited military commitment.
Prime Minister Romano Prodi said President George. W. Bush had told him by telephone of his “positive” view of Italy’s offer to lead the force. He added that Bush was also leaning on allies to offer troops.
“I expect that reluctant or not, smiling or not, there will be an ample European contribution,” Prodi said in an interview with Rai state radio.
His foreign minister, Massimo D’Alema, said he expected French President Jacques Chirac to announce a “substantial increase” in the contribution in a speech later on Thursday.
Western diplomatic sources in the Middle East said France has shown willing to provide the equivalent of one battalion, estimated at between 800 and 1,000 troops, to the U.N. force, which will help the Lebanese army control south Lebanon after the conflict between Israel and the guerrilla group Hizbollah.
The United Nations says a strengthened U.N. force in south Lebanon is urgently needed to preserve the fragile truce which came into effect on Aug. 14 after a month of fighting which killed more than 1,300 people, mostly Lebanese civilians.
But wrangling over the mandate and the participants has made it hard for the United Nations to muster support for the mission. Syria and Israel are also at odds over whether it should deploy on the Syrian border to prevent arms smuggling.
France, which was initially expected to lead the peace force, sent 200 soldiers last week to join the 2,000-strong UNIFIL force which has been in south Lebanon since 1978. The United Nations has approved an expanded force of up to 15,000.
Italy is willing to send up to 3,000 troops provided Israel observes the truce and other European governments join in.
In response to the dispute between Syria and Israel over deploying the U.N. force along the Syrian border, Lebanon undertook on Thursday to prevent smuggling. It did not rule out asking the U.N. troops to help the army with its border task but said the cabinet had not yet taken a decision on that.
Syria threatened on Wednesday to close the border if the U.N. troops deploy there. Israel says it will not lift a sea and air blockade of Lebanon unless the U.N. force helps the Lebanese army ensure that no new weapons reach Hizbollah in the south.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, in an interview broadcast on Thursday, said the cabinet would have to discuss the matter but Lebanon had no intention of showing hostility toward Syria.
“We want friendly relations with Syria and we are interested in the question of the border to prevent any infiltration into Lebanon,” he told the French television channel TV5.
The truce ended a war in which nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, were killed, as well as 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers. The war erupted after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised more than $2 billion in reconstruction funds for the areas in northern Israel that were damaged during the war with Hizbollah.
Olmert’s popularity has declined amid criticism of Israel’s failure to crush Hizbollah. He is already struggling to hold together his coalition to pass an initial spending package for the war, and did not say where the new reconstruction funds would come from.
Israeli forces are also engaged in conflict with Palestinians in Gaza, where Israel is trying to free another captured soldier. On Thursday, Israelis killed three Palestinians and seized a senior member of the Hamas movement, Younis Abu Daqqa. One of those killed was Abu Daqqa’s brother.
The ceasefire in Lebanon is fragile and witnesses said Israeli warplanes flew over the Bekaa valley in the east of the country on Thursday — an act Lebanon and the United Nations consider to be a truce violation.
In the south Lebanese village of Marwaheen, hundreds of mourners buried 23 people killed in an Israeli air strike on their van on July 15 while they were trying to flee.
Mourners showered the bodies with rice and flowers within sight of Israeli soldiers atop a hill nearby. The bodies were initially buried at a cemetery in the southern city of Tyre.
“I want to see them before they go,” said 17-year-old Zeinab Abdullah, who survived the attack but lost 12 relatives including her father. “I can’t stand living without them.” — Reuter