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Peacekeeping force taking shape

UNITED NATIONS -- French military officers were headed to the United Nations yesterday to begin planning for a peacekeeping force that would support the Lebanese Army and take over Israeli positions in a buffer zone, UN and French officials said.

The UN Security Council Friday authorized up to 15,000 troops for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, including the 2,000 already on the ground, after a month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

At the UN, officials were waiting to see which countries would commit troops after the second meeting in three days of some 20 interested nations.

Some countries were waiting for a firm commitment from France, after which UN officials would define a concept of operations, diplomats said.

``We have no formal, specific commitments from troop contributors, but obviously we're continuing those discussions," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

``As opposed to past situations, we have one leg up in that there is already a UN force in south Lebanon," Dujarric said. ``We don't face the situation that we faced in other countries where we go in and there is no UN infrastructure on the ground."

The current force, allowed only to monitor and observe, is led by Major General Alain Pellegrini, a Frenchman who Dujarric believes will stay on as commander.

The new force was given a far more robust mandate by the Security Council Friday, including the right to ``take all necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces" as it supports the Lebanese armed forces to ``exercise sovereignty over all its territory."

Several European countries, including Germany and Italy, have expressed interest, but both face domestic opposition. Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei are also on the list of nations that are considering offering soldiers.

But raising 13,000 troops in a short period of time may prove extremely difficult. Dujarric said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was ``working the phones" with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and others to raise a ``mobile robust force."

In Germany, the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, citing government sources, reported yesterday that the ruling coalition has agreed to contribute troops to the peace force. Earlier yesterday, government spokesman Thomas Steg said that the Cabinet would discuss the matter next week.

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