Italy offers to lead UN peacekeepers in Lebanon

BEIRUT (Reuters) — Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said on Monday his country was ready to lead a UN force in south Lebanon, where shooting by Israeli troops at Hizbollah fighters showed the fragility of a week-old truce.

Prodi told reporters in Italy that he had informed UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who he said would make a final decision on the command of the force this weekend. The Beirut government welcomed Italy’s offer of 2,000 troops, the biggest commitment any country has yet made. Israel has already said it would be happy if Italy lead the force.

Italy’s right-wing opposition warned the deployment could prove a “kamikaze” mission.

US President George W. Bush called earlier for the urgent dispatch of UN peacekeepers to south Lebanon. Turkey, Spain and other countries are still hesitating over whether to send contingents after France, earlier tipped to lead the force, sharply reduced its anticipated contribution.

“The international community must now designate the leadership of this international force, give it robust rules of engagement and deploy it as quickly as possible to secure the peace,” Bush told a news conference in Washington.

Bush also announced a $230 million aid package to Lebanon that includes 25,000 tonnes of wheat.

In a sign of how shaky the truce is, the Israeli army said its troops had shot and hit three armed men in the south, but did not say if they had been killed. It said there had been no return fire. Hizbollah denied any of its men had been killed.

The UN-backed truce has already been jolted by an Israeli commando raid in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on Saturday which the United Nations described as a violation.

The United Nations has vowed to move 3,500 extra troops to the south by September 2, but has received few firm offers of help to build the force to its authorised strength of 15,000.

France had earlier been expected to lead the mission but then dismayed the United Nations by offering only 200 troops to add to those it already has in the existing 2,000-strong UNIFIL.

Bush again urged the French to increase their contribution.

“I would hope that they would put more troops in,” he said.

“France has had a very close relationship with Lebanon.” The truce halted 34 days of fighting, in which nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the situation in Lebanon as “very fragile” and also called for a swift deployment of UN forces. Her country will not send combat troops, but will help patrol the Lebanese coast.

The Lebanese army has deployed along the Syrian border and has moved deep into the shattered south, but Israel says its troops will not pull out fully until extra UN forces arrive.

UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said after talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and senior Olmert aides that he hoped Israel would end its air and sea blockade of Lebanon as authorities there take full control of the borders.

He also said he saw “reason for optimism” that all parties would fully respect the truce.

The Israeli government came under further fire at home for its handling of the war, which failed to destroy Hizbollah or secure the release of two soldiers whose capture by Hizbollah in a cross-border raid on July 12 sparked the conflict.

Israeli reservists vented their anger at politicians and army officers for indecisiveness and other perceived failures.

“The government didn’t take seriously the lives of our troops,” said Zvi Marek, a reserve infantry soldier at a demonstration in Jerusalem.

In addition, Israeli Brigadier-General Yossi Heiman said the military had been guilty of arrogance in its approach.

In a sign that life is gradually returning to normal in Beirut, the Lebanese stock exchange lifted restrictions brought in during the war to limit price volatility. Trade was brisk and the benchmark BLOM Stock Index rose 5.8 per cent.

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Ben Khalifa Al Thani, discussed aid plans in Beirut. He was the first head of state to visit Lebanon since the war began. Lebanese officials have said Qatar has offered to rebuild devastated villages in the south.

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