Mideast truce suffers setback


PARIS --The shaky U.N.-brokered cease-fire in Lebanon suffered another blow yesterday when the European countries that have been called upon to provide the backbone of a peacekeeping force delayed a decision on committing troops until the mission is more clearly defined. Their reservations postponed any action on the force at least until Wednesday, when the European Union will take up the issue.

Haunted by their experiences in Bosnia in the 1990s, when their forces were unable to stop widespread ethnic killing, European governments are insisting upon clarifying the chain of command and rules of engagement before plunging into the even greater complexities of the Middle East.

"In the past, when peacekeeping missions were not properly defined, we've seen major failures," a spokeswoman for the French Foreign Ministry, Agnes Romatet, said yesterday. "There are the bad memories of Bosnia. This time we want the answers beforehand, so we don't come to the problems when they have happened."

A senior French official said, "Italy, Spain and Finland have raised the same questions as France has." A spokesman for the Spanish Foreign Ministry said Spain was willing to send troops, "but the rules have to be clarified and agreed on."

Some countries such as Australia, which has placed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, have flatly refused to commit troops.

"We have no intention of making any significant contribution," said a senior Australian official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. "We don't have any confidence in it. It is not going to have the mandate to disarm Hezbollah."

The confusion over the peacekeeping force, coming just a day after an abortive Israeli commando raid, added to fears that the cease-fire could easily break down.

"Unfortunately, there is a tilting edge where things very easily, within the next weeks or months, can slide out of control," a top United Nations envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, said yesterday at a news conference in Beirut, after two days of meetings with Lebanese officials.

Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, scheduled the Wednesday meeting in Brussels, Belgium, at which diplomatic and military experts are expected to address questions that they believe still have not been properly answered.

"We need to know, what are the material and legal means at our disposal," said the French defense minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, on Friday. "You can't send in men and tell them: Observe what is going on, but you don't have the right to defend yourself or shoot."

In a further complication, Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, told his Cabinet yesterday that he does not want countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel to participate in the peacekeeping force, according to an official in the prime minister's office. Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh are among the countries that have offered troops but have no diplomatic ties with Israel.

Olmert spoke by telephone with Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy and called on Italy to take a leading role in the international force, according to a statement released by Olmert's office. Italy has offered to send up to 3,000 troops, while France, which helped broker the cease-fire, has refused to commit more than 200.

While the troubled peacekeeping force dominated discussion in Europe, repercussions from Saturday night's commando raid in Lebanon were still being felt in Israel.

Israeli officials defended the risky night operation, which they said was aimed at stopping the smuggling of weapons to Hezbollah. They said the raid was justified, since the U.N. truce calls for an end to the rearming of the militant group. Officials hinted that the Israeli military would act again if it suspected that weapons were flowing to Hezbollah.

"The resolution has very clear directives on limiting the transfer of weapons from Syria and Iran into Lebanon," said Isaac Herzog, the tourism minister and a member of Israel's Security Cabinet. "The directives speak of a full embargo. As long as it is not enforced, we have the full right to act against it."

Israel released few details about the raid, and speculation abounded in the Israeli news media that the commandos were seeking either to free the two Israeli soldiers whose capture touched off the recent conflict or to kill a Hezbollah leader.

The commandos were from the Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli news media reported, the country's most elite, legendary and secretive unit, one that carried out, among other operations, the famous Entebbe raid to free hostages held on an airliner.

Lt. Col. Emanuel Morano, who was apparently the leader of the force, put at about 100 men by the Israeli news media, was killed, and another officer and a soldier were wounded.

In Israel, it was widely assumed that the mission was considered highly important and involved something more than interdicting an effort to resupply Hezbollah with standard weaponry. Many of the reports in the Israeli news media centered on speculation that the raid was intended to gather intelligence or evidence about advanced, Russian-made weaponry sold to Syria and being sent into Lebanon for Hezbollah.

In an analysis in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Alex Fishman wrote that Hezbollah had been using advanced Soviet-made anti-tank weapons. More than 10 days ago, he wrote, a legal opinion was written by lawyers reviewing the U.N.-backed cease-fire agreement "stipulating unequivocally" that attacks on Hezbollah weaponry would be classified as "an act of defense."

Whatever the purpose of the raid, most agreed that it never would have been revealed if the commandos had not run into serious trouble.

"Nobody was supposed to hear about the secret operation two days ago deep inside Lebanon, one of the secret operations the public is not told about," the newspaper Maariv said. But, the paper added, "the mission got in trouble on the way."

The daily Haaretz quoted an unidentified military source as saying, "We were really lucky the operation did not end with 10 commandos killed."

Some commentators described the raid as another black mark for the Israeli military, already under severe criticism for its conduct of the Lebanon war.

Writing in Yediot Ahronot, Amir Rappaport said that "the operation was intended to be absolutely secret and the mere fact that it was revealed and even claimed casualties is proof of its failure."

Meeting in Cairo, Egypt, yesterday, Arab foreign ministers expressed their ''readiness" to contribute to the reconstruction of Lebanon.

"The United Arab Emirates will rebuild the schools and hospitals in southern Lebanon and help remove land mines, Qatar will rebuild the town of Bint Jbeil, and Kuwait will set aside $800 million," said Hecham Youssef, adviser to the secretary general of the Arab League. "This is in addition to the $500 million already promised by Saudi Arabia for reconstruction efforts."

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