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Europeans Meet Again to Define Lebanon Force

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

European foreign ministers are meeting today in Brussels. Their aim is to clearly define Europe's role in a U.N. peacekeeping force for Lebanon. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will also be there, a sign of the importance that the U.N. attaches to a strong European component for the force.

Yesterday France announced it will contribute a total of 2,000 troops, some of which are already there. NPR's Emily Harris is covering this story in Brussels. And, Emily, how has yesterday's announcement by the French affected today's talks?

EMILY HARRIS reporting:

Well, it seems to have given some momentum to what's been quite a slow process of getting firm European commitments, particularly to putting soldiers on the ground between Israel and Hezbollah, which is what the U.N. says is needed.

This put some pressure on other European countries to make concrete offers. And it's expected some other offers could come today. But there's also a meeting in New York on Monday on this topic, and some announcements may be coming next week.

MONTAGNE: You know, what's interesting about this is France was originally expected to send a couple of thousand troops, lead the force - then last week it backed off that commitment and sent 200 combat engineers to Lebanon, indicated that would be it. Why has France now reversed course and returned to a bigger contribution?

HARRIS: It's not entirely clear. French President Jacques Chirac said, in a speech on national television announcing the troop contributions last night, that he was given assurances and clarifications by the United Nations on some questions regarding the chain of command and how much freedom troops on the ground would have to move and respond to hostile situations.

But the French were quite closely involved in documents that spelled those issues out. So it's not clear what clarifications were needed. There's also been reports that the delay in France came from disagreements within the French government.

This is a really tricky situation to send peacekeepers in between Hezbollah and Israel. Politicians know it could be really dangerous for troops. And basically no nation wants to get itself into a position of potentially being blamed if the cease-fire doesn't hold.

Chirac also did mentioned yesterday, when he announced the new troop promises, that he got assurances from Lebanon and Israel that the troops will, quote, be in a position to fulfill the mission on the ground. And he didn't exactly spell out what that means, but all European governments are concerned their troops don't wind up in the middle of something that they can't stop or become targets.

MONTAGNE: So at this point is the U.N. close to getting all the troops it needs?

HARRIS: The acceptable numbers and the target dates to having troops on the ground have been slipping a little bit. The overall target is 15,000 international troops. But the U.N. says, if they can pull off nine or ten thousand, that would be significant they say.

Remember that this is along with 15,000 Lebanese troops on the ground. The idea is to have the international force support the Lebanese military. Chirac did say in his speech yesterday, that several Muslim nations in Asia will participate, although it wasn't clear what he meant because Israel has objected to offers from several majority Muslim Asian nations that don't recognize Israel diplomatically.

MONTAGNE: And what about the U.N. force military observers already on the ground? A couple of thousand of them - been there for several years in southern Lebanon.

HARRIS: So the new troops that are coming in are aiming to beef that mission up with a new mandate and, you know, considerably more bodies. And the hope is that these new bodies can be in place, potentially, at least some of them, by next week. Maybe three, three-and-a-half thousand by the beginning of September is what the U.N. is shooting for. The rest may take several months to be actually on the ground.

MONTAGNE: Emily, thanks very much.

HARRIS: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Emily Harris speaking from Brussels.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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