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World Past experience gives French qualms about Lebanon mission

Name a peacekeeping mission just about anywhere in the world, from Africa to Afghanistan, and French soldiers participate.

But its past experiences, frustrating as well as deadly, have made France reluctant to commit large numbers of troops to a United Nations force assigned to keep the peace in Lebanon.

After helping draft the Security Council resolution that brought about the ceasefire on Monday between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, France this week threw a wrench into UN peacekeeping plans for Lebanon.

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French officials criticized the design for a new multinational force that would reinforce the existing 2,000-strong UN observer force in southern Lebanon, a mission known as UNIFIL, without giving it new offensive powers. They called it a recipe for disaster.

President Jacques Chirac, after a meeting here on Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said proposed rules of engagement for the new force were inadequate. For the time being, he said France would only send 200 additional soldiers to beef up UNIFIL, which already includes 200 French troops and is now led by a French general.

At the same time, the French Defence Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, warned of a potential "catastrophe" if more troops were sent into a treacherous post-conflict area like Lebanon without the authority to take offensive action or fight if necessary.

"I remember the unhappy experiences of other operations where UN forces had neither a sufficiently precise mission nor the means to act," Mrs. Alliot-Marie said. "You cannot send out men and tell them that they should watch what's happening but that they have no right to defend themselves or fire."

The French position on the planned new force was based on their particular memories of other military missions in the Middle East and beyond, according to analysts in Paris.

In 1983, for example, when French troops last deployed in Lebanon on a military mission, Hezbollah bombers blew up the barracks of their multinational force, killing 58 French soldiers and 241 U.S. Marines.

That mission was a prime example of how not to mount a peacekeeping mission, said François Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "And the players, including Hezbollah, are the same now as they were in 1983," he added.

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France learned from that experience the importance of retaining command and control over its own troops, a lesson that was hammered home again in the early 1990s, when France participated in a UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mr. Heisbourg said.

For the French and others, the flaws of a weak UN mission were underlined when Serb fighters took dozens of UN soldiers hostage, including French peacekeepers, while the multinational peacekeepers were constrained by rules that allowed them only to fire only in self-defence.

"What we want to avoid is what we met when we were in Bosnia before the Dayton agreement," said Guillaume Parmentier, the director of the France Centre on the United States at the French Institute for Foreign Relations in Paris. "You could reply when attacked but couldn't intervene when things were going on in front of your eyes.

"That spells complete disaster, like what happened at Srebrenica" he added, referring to the town that was in a zone monitored by UN peacekeepers where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered.

The United Nations resolution to end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah provides for a reinforced UNIFIL force to help the Lebanese army establish control in south Lebanon as Israeli and Hezbollah forces withdraw.

France has participated in numerous multinational missions around the world, but almost always under the umbrella of the European Union, African organizations, NATO and the UN. It has about 10,000 troops in Africa, some manning bases that France has maintained for decades in its former colonies.

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Its biggest, and most violent, engagement now is in the Ivory Coast, where its troops operate in a zone that is supposed to keep warring rebels and government forces apart.

As the former colonial power in Lebanon and neighbouring Syria, France has deeper roots there than other Western nations.

"France has strong ties to a part of the Lebanese people," said Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, in an interview with Le Monde newspaper this week. "But by themselves, those ties are not sufficient foundation for a military engagement of this nature, especially when none of the causes of this conflict have been resolved."

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