Interim force enters 19th year U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon watch continuing carnage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ALMAN, Lebanon -- Maj. Jari Piira looks out over a seemingly serene landscape of hills steeply rising from the banks of the meandering Litani River as hawks glide overhead.

But this is the most active battlefield in the Middle East, a setting for more than 20 years of ambushes, invasions and rocket duels. Piira, a Finnish paratrooper, watches the carnage between Israel and Islamic militias as a member of a United Nations peacekeeping force, an "interim" peacekeeping arrangement now in its 19th discouraging year.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon -- or UNIFIL -- arrived in 1978 with this mission: to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon. A civil war involving Lebanese Christians and Muslims and the Palestine Liberation Organization was under way, with Israel supporting a Christian faction.

The war escalated when Israel decided that its problems in the south could only be solved if all of Lebanon were at peace. The Israeli army invaded in 1982 -- and found Lebanon its worst nightmare, a front that sapped military resources and morale. In 1985, Israel agreed to withdraw, but it established a buffer zone in the south.

Israeli troops remain entrenched in that 9-mile-wide zone, locked in an intractable fight with Islamic guerrillas. So far this year, 13 Israeli soldiers have died in South Lebanon. The death toll among Lebanese civilians is higher. Ten civilians were killed during the past week alone.

The past week brought a larger than usual amount of violence: The Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army shelled the city of Sidon. Guerrillas responded by firing more than 75 rockets into northern Israel. Israel responded by launching rocket attacks of its own, as well as four air raids. Twenty-six people, mostly civilians, were killed in the spiraling confrontations. UNIFIL soldiers could only watch.

But the peacekeeping force has pursued another role -- providing humanitarian aid to civilians.

"It's not the work of soldiers, but only soldiers can do this [kind of] peacekeeping work," said Piira, who commands a battalion of Finnish peacekeepers. "There are difficult things going on here. We should not forget the people."

The peacekeeping force, identified by the United Nations' trademark blue berets, and white vehicles with prominent "UN" markings, includes about 4,500 soldiers from nine countries patrolling parts of the Israeli-controlled "security zone" and the Lebanese-controlled territory immediately to its north. UNIFIL monitors activities of Israeli soldiers, their counterparts in the Israeli-sponsored South Lebanon Army and the Islamic militias.

"South Lebanon is having some kind of a normal life because UNIFIL is here," said Lt. Col. Teamo Junttila, deputy commander of the Finnish battalion.

The Finns have built a school in a village adjacent to their headquarters compound. They established health clinics in some villages, dug wells in others and send their doctors and nurses into the countryside.

At UNIFIL checkpoints, civilian cars are checked for weapons. At UNIFIL observation towers, soldiers from Ireland, Norway, Ghana, Fiji, Nepal and Finland search for guerrillas trying to infiltrate the Israeli-controlled security zone, and monitor Israeli troops and their client militia.

Every morning, UNIFIL troops patrol in armored vehicles to make visual sweep for mines and roadside bombs, which may be fashioned to look like rocks. They patrol villages on foot.

While Piira's white U.N. jeep rode through a Lebanese village, children waved and shouted hello. "It's important to see how the children act," Piira said. "You know what the parents are thinking."

Earlier this year, a firefight between Israeli and Lebanese militiamen led to four deaths within sight of one of Piira's observation posts -- one Israeli and three Lebanese.

The Israelis managed to carry off their dead comrade. Piira's U.N. peacekeepers were asked to retrieve the three dead Lebanese.

Piira led 10 of his men and a medical team into a valley XTC nicknamed "the shooting wadi." They carried the blue U.N. flag and called out to the Israeli troops.

"The answer was shooting," said Piira. "I got my first battle baptism."

The peacekeepers retreated, returned a few hours later and successfully carried out the dead.

During the past year, the Finnish troops recorded 112 incidents in which artillery or bomb blasts landed within 200 yards of their posts.

4 "It's a dirty game," Capt. Joakim Peterson said.

Pub Date: 8/24/97

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