UN pushes for Lebanon stabilisation force

Saint Petersburg - United Nations chief Kofi Annan called Monday for an end to hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in order to buy time to put a well-armed "stabilisation force" along the Lebanon-Israel border.

"We need to get the parties to agree as soon as practicable to a cessation of hostilities to give us time and space to work" on the multinational force, the UN secretary general said at the G8 summit of world leaders.

"Fighting may continue for a while, (but) I appeal to the parties to focus their targets narrowly and to bear in mind that they have an obligation under international humanitarian law to spare civilian lives (and) infrastructure," he added after talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Annan flew into Saint Petersburg a day after leaders of the world's eight richest nations proposed the deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon to help put a halt to the fighting.

Referring at least twice to "a stabilisation force", Annan said the United Nations needed enough room "to make sure we have the troops - well-trained, well-equipped troops - to go in quite quickly."

Where the troops would come from, and how heavily armed they would be to prevent Hezbollah fighters from firing rockets into Israel, remains unclear.

The final hours of the three-day summit here Monday was meant to focus on Africa and global trade talks, but minds were still very much on the Middle East and the fear of all-out war.

Israeli forces have been relentlessly pounding targets in Lebanon since the middle of last week after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, while Hezbollah has retaliated with rocket attacks on Israeli cities.

More than 170 people, according to an AFP count - 148 in Lebanon and 24 Israelis - have been killed in the devastating conflict which has brought widespread international appeals for restraint.

Israel has also been pressing an offensive in Gaza after militants captured a soldier there, and scores have died.

Annan said he expects a UN team in the region, led by his special political advisor, Vijay Nambiar, to report to the UN Security Council "towards the end of this week".

"The sooner decisions are taken by the Council, the better it is, but the parties need not wait for their full implementation to start the cessation of hostilites and to spare civilians," he said.

He recalled that four of the G8 nations - Britain, France, Russia and the United States - are permanent Security Council members, and implied that they must not use their vetos to delay the force's deployment.

"I think several of the (G8) countries are also key members of the Security Council," he said, "and I expect them to work with us."

Blair, for his part, said the stabilisation force was the key to ending the immediate conflict and to restoring confidence, with the ultimate aim being a return to the diplomatic road map to a lasting Middle East peace.

"The only way we are going to have a cessation of violence is if we have an international force deployed into that area," he said.

"This is obviously a very critical situation, and the most immediate priority is to create the conditions in which a cessation of violence can happen -- but this is a very, very, serious situation indeed."

The United Nations has a monitoring force on the Lebanese-Israeli border known as UNIFIL, which was set up in March 1978 to oversee an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon that finally only took place 22 years later.

It is made up of 2 000 soldiers and 500 civilians mandated to supervise a ceasefire on the border but is largely powerless. Its mandate, renewed every six months by the Security Council, next expires on July 31.

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