PARIS - France is willing to lead a new UN presence in Lebanon at least until February, so long as the force is given a clear mandate and strong powers, Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said today.
Alliot-Marie told French television she hoped a large number of European and Muslim countries would take part in the beefed-up UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), but said the United Nations must define the operation.
"France wants the mission's rules of engagement to be clear and it to have real means," said a highly cautious Alliot-Marie, giving no indication of when the new force might take shape.
"Sadly, all too often, the United Nations forces don't have the power that they asked for," she added.
The UN Security Council has authorised up to 15,000 troops for UNIFIL, including the 2,000 already on the ground, after a month of fighting between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas.
The current mission, which has only been allowed to monitor and observe the situation in southern Lebanon, is headed by French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini.
"We already have the command (of UNIFIL) and we are ready to continue to do this until next February including for the enlarged UNIFIL," Alliot-Marie said, calling on France's European and Muslim allies to sign up to the new mission.
"We insist all the international community is involved. At no moment should there be the impression that this action represents the Western world against the Muslim world. We want this to be peace against war," she said.
The minister said she understood Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Turkey had indicated they could take part. The same went for other countries, she said, naming Australia.
Potential troop contributors are due to meet UN peacekeeping officials on Thursday to discuss operations and rules of engagement. Many have yet to firmly commit soldiers to UNIFIL.
Diplomats said while French President Jacques Chirac was willing to commit troops, the military was far more cautious over tackling the potential violence in southern Lebanon.
The hesitation is perhaps understandable given France's experience of past peacekeeping operations - notably a mission to Beirut in 1983 when bomb attacks blamed on Muslim guerrillas killed 58 French paratroopers and 241 US Marines.
A decade later, French troops also suffered humiliation as part of a UN peacekeeping mission to Bosnia, being taken hostage by Bosnian Serbs.
"I believe it is the responsibility of all those concerned on both a national and international level, when you give a difficult mission to the military to obtain for them also the necessary material and legal means," Alliot-Marie said.
The United Nations hopes France will lead advance contingents of up to 3,500 troops to southern Lebanon which the world body wants to field within two weeks.
Pellegrini met Israeli commanders on Wednesday and told Israel's Channel 10 that UN troops could begin to deploy next week. "We will (try to) deploy as soon as possible. Maybe some elements (will be on the ground) at the beginning of next week."