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France commits 2,000 to UN force

EU official hopes to start deploying troops within days

PARIS -- President Jacques Chirac announced yesterday that France would send 2,000 soldiers to southern Lebanon and hopes to retain command of the UN peacekeeping force, as a top European Union official said international troops could start deploying within days.

The offer by France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler and key architect of a UN Security Council resolution to increase the force's size, was a major step toward expanding it more than a week after a cease-fire took hold.

It also represented a turnaround for Paris, which drew criticism last week after announcing it would only double its contingent of 200 troops. France's role as mission commander then came under pressure, with Italy expressing a willingness to take the lead role and pledging up to 3,000 troops.

Dominique Moisi, an analyst with France's Institute for International Relations, said France -- in announcing a larger force -- had felt the ``international and national outrage at the contradiction between the French promises and what the French delivered."

Finland's foreign minister, Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the rotating European Union presidency, said he wants to see the first reinforcements arrive within a week if possible.

In a televised address broadcast across Europe and the Mideast, Chirac said he made the decision after receiving guarantees allowing the force ``free movement and its ability to act when faced with a possible hostile situation."

``We obtained the necessary clarifications on the chain of command, which must be simple, coherent and reactive," Chirac said, adding that he would evaluate the size of the French contingent over the next six months as events progress. ``I am convinced today that French soldiers can be deployed effectively."

Chirac sought to claim some credit for drawing in other countries, saying that he had ``spoken with several of my counterparts to persuade them to take their full part."

France, along with the United States, helped craft the UN Security Council resolution that called for the expansion of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, from 2,000 troops to 15,000. They are to join an equal number of Lebanese troops in preserving the shaky cease-fire by making sure Hezbollah does not fire rockets or carry out raids into Israel.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will decide who leads the force, though France's current command isn't set to expire until February.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora of Lebanon said in a statement that Chirac's decision will ``serve Lebanon and strengthen stability, and helps Lebanon to regain its lands through the implementation of Israeli withdrawal, and helps the state of Lebanon to spread its authority on its territories in southern Lebanon."

Under the UN resolution, the Israelis are to withdraw ``in tandem" with the arrival of the enhanced international force.

Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, urged the international community to act as quickly as possible to deploy the force. Sporadic violence has marked the cease-fire that took hold Aug. 14 and ended 34 days of ferocious fighting, but the truce has thus far held.

``The extremists who want to inflame the region are watching us, and this will test the strength and determination of the international community," Livni said after a meeting with Italy's foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema.

A separate controversy has developed over whether the international force will patrol the Lebanon-Syria border.

Israel insists a UN force take up positions along the border to cut off arms shipments to Hezbollah, while Syria says such a move would be a ``hostile" act.

Saniora's Cabinet affirmed yesterday its determination to uphold the cease-fire and called on the international community to send troops to free up the Lebanese Army to patrol the country's borders. It did not directly address the issue of UN troops on the Syrian border.

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