|Italy offers to lead force to police tenuous Lebanon truce
|Italy has offered to lead a peacekeeping force for Lebanon to shore up a tenuous UN-brokered truce, which was rattled further with the killing of two Hezbollah guerrillas by Israeli troops.
Monday's announcement by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi came as US President George W. Bush called for the "urgent" creation of a beefed-up UN force, with only a few nations willing to send troops to Lebanon.
UN chief Kofi Annan was also considering travelling to the region to assess the ceasefire ending end 34 days of warfare between Israel and Hezbollah that cost more than 1,400 lives and devastated much of Lebanon.
The Israeli military said it had killed at least two Hezbollah fighters in south Lebanon late Monday, although this was denied by the Shiite militant group on its Al-Manar television.
Troops fired on a group of armed Hezbollah militants who looked threatening, an Israeli spokesman said, claiming that the incident did not violate the UN ceasefire because soldiers "acted in legitimate self-defence".
There has sporadic violence since the "cessation of hostilities" took effect on August 14 but UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Monday he was optimistic it would hold.
The UN resolution that paved the way for the truce calls for a strengthened international force in the war-battered south along with the deployment of the Lebanese army in tandem with the withdrawal of Israeli forces, as well as the disarmament of Hezbollah.
"The international community must now designate the leadership of this new international force, give it robust rules of engagement and deploy it as quickly as possible to secure the peace," Bush told a press conference Monday.
"The need is urgent," said Bush, whose own administration is not however offering any troops.
Bush, a staunch supporter of Israel, also said Hezbollah would be disarmed only once a "security zone" is created along the volatile border.
In Rome, Prodi said he had told Annan that Italy would be available to command the UN mission, in the face of widespread reluctance to contribute to an expanded 15,000-strong force.
France, which currently leads the 2,000-strong multinational operation, had said that it was willing to lead the expanded force, but thus far has only committed to doubling its current contingent of 200 soldiers.
EU countries are due to meet in Brussels on Wednesday to clarify EU commitments. So far, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Portugal and Spain said they were willing, but fell short of hoped-for UN numbers.
Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nepal are the few countries with firm commitments but Israel has said it would oppose the deployment of any troops from nations without diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Potential contributors are believed to fear being drawn into renewed fighting between Hezbollah and Israeli forces currently withdrawing from southern Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Annan could visit the Middle East as part of efforts to ensure the ceasefire resolution is fully implemented, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, although no date has been fixed.
The month-long war killed close to 1,300 people in Lebanon, most of them Lebanese civilians, and killed 160 people in Israel, mostly soldiers.
But each side continues to accuse the other of breaching the accord and on Monday Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora protested what he called Israeli violations of his country's air space.
Israel has said it would not hesitate to act against alleged cross-border arms smuggling to Hezbollah from Syria after a commando raid Saturday in eastern Lebanon which Annan slammed as a ceasefire violation.
In Tehran, Hezbollah's representative Abdullah Safieddin warned that the group would not disarm.
However, Lebanon warned Sunday it would punish any group violating the truce, an implicit warning to Hezbollah, even as Israel said it was preparing for the "next round" against the Shiite guerrillas.
Israeli political and military leaders are now facing an official investigation into the conduct of the war amid growing public anger over how the offensive was handled.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in power for barely three months, has come under attack for failing in the goals of crushing Hezbollah and retrieving two soldiers whose capture by the militia on July 12 triggered the biggest onslaught against Lebanon in a quarter of a century.
In its offensive, Israel destroyed much of Lebanon's infrastructure, homes, roads, bridges and power stations, causing 3.5 billion dollars in damage.
Lebanon also remains nearly cut off from the outside world because of a punishing air and sea blockade imposed in the first days of the war.
Lebanese hopes of quick aid from the Arab League were dashed however when the 22-member bloc said Sunday they were committed to helping reconstruction but delayed discussion of concrete plans until September.
The Daily Star