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French Version

Italy 'undecided' over command of UNIFIL

A top Italian envoy said Wednesday that Rome has yet to decide whether it will lead the UN force to be deployed in South Lebanon. "We have not taken a decision yet," said Riccardo Sessa, director general for the Mediterranean and Middle East at the Italian foreign Ministry, following a meeting with Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh.

Israel earlier this week said it wants Italy to lead the beefed-up UN force to replace Israeli troops as they leave the South.

"We discussed the international and internal conditions to form the force and deploy it in the South. The sooner the force is formed and deployed the better it will be for the Lebanese people," Sessa added.

Italy announced on Monday that it will deploy around 3,000 troops to South Lebanon.

Sessa said Italy is still hesitant because "every international force that decides to deploy in a foreign country requires a political, internal and international framework that should be clear and offers safety guarantees."

"It is also the task of the Lebanese political parties and the Lebanese government to provide this framework," he added.

He said participation is an opportunity for Italy and for Europe "to play a bigger role in the Middle East."

European foreign ministers are scheduled to meet next Friday with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to discuss with him the situation in Lebanon and UNIFIL's mandate. Annan wants Europeans to play the lead role.

European Union officials and military experts held a meeting at in Brussels Wednesday to prepare for Friday's extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers and Annan.

Salloukh said Italy and other countries that will participate have only one condition: that the area where their troops will be deployed be free of Hizbullah weapons.

"The guarantees the countries are asking before they take

part in the expanded and enhanced UNIFIL are limited to freeing the area from weapons," Salloukh said during his joint press conference with Sessa.

Sessa also met with Speaker Nabih Berri to discuss the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. He also met with Defense Minister Elias Murr, saying afterward that Italy "is not worried about participating in the UN force as much as it is worried about not having enough guarantees other countries will take part in it."

"It is normal the Lebanese government, people and parties resume their responsibilities at this stage and the international community is also ready to do its role," Sessa added.

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis also visited Beirut Wednesday, vowing to contribute troops to the UN force.

Bakoyannis toured the badly damaged Dahiyeh and met with Lebanese officials to underscore Athens' support for the truce.

After talks with Salloukh, Salloukh Bakoyannis said Greece would send troops, a helicopter unit and naval divers. She gave no numbers.

Lebanese Foreign Ministry officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Greece had proposed sending two warships.

Beirut 24-08-2006
Nada Bakri
The Daily Star

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