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Middle east

French soldiers face tough task in Lebanon

Text by Perrine MOUTERDE

Latest update : 2011-11-30

Approximately 1,300 French soldiers are part of a UN mission in southern Lebanon, supporting the Lebanese Army and monitoring a ceasefire with Israel. French army leaders call the UN mission in Lebanon more “complicated” than the one in Afghanistan.

After a punishing six-hour journey to the heart of southern Lebanon in their secure but uncomfortable Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), a unit of French UN peacekeepers bed down for the night.

Inside the vehicle, Corporal Simeon is in a deep sleep, mouth wide open and sunglasses perched on the edge of his nose. His buddies joke around as they get ready to do the same.

It has been raining, but when the rain finally stops, Private Jonathan Hoarau and Chief Corporal Tinirau peer out of the vehicle’s hatch to survey their surroundings. The rocky valleys are dotted with olive groves, hamlets and a sprinkling of luxury villas.

The patrol’s objective today is simply to work out exactly which roads in the area are suitable enough for their APC, bearing in mind that many village streets are simply too narrow.

Since March 2010, French forces known as the Force Commander Reserve (FCR) have been on standby, ready to intervene within three hours anywhere they are needed in the UN-controlled area.

Troops serving under the UN banner –the so-called “blue helmets”, were first ordered into south Lebanon in 1978. Israeli troops had invaded the region in response to several terrorist attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was set up to ensure the withdrawal of Israeli troops and to restore peace in the region. The mission’s numbers and mandate were bolstered after war broke out once again in the summer of 2006. With tensions still high in the border region, the challenges facing UNIFIL show no sign of abating.

More “complicated” than Afghanistan

Chief Corporal Tinirau and his unit from the First Rifle Regiment of Epinal are part of approximately 13,000 UN peacekeepers deployed south of the Litani River. The French contingent numbers 1,300 men. Their mission was recently described by the French Chief of Staff – Admiral Edouard Guillard - as being more complex than the one in Afghanistan.

“Our mission in Afghanistan is the toughest because of the number of dead and wounded that we suffer, but in Lebanon it is more complicated,” he told the French parliament’s Defence Committee on October 5.

He pointed to regular attacks on the peacekeepers by armed civilians who steal their documents and equipment, saying these kinds of “provocations” put his soldiers under “real pressure”.

Since 1978, a total of 277 UN troops as well as several civilian staff have been killed while fulfilling their duties for UNIFIL.

In the back of the APC, Chief Corporal Benoit Sansse, now in his third mission in Lebanon, appears calm and composed. “Here we are not at war but you have to be prepared for anything. For example in theory there are no roadside bombs here, but we still need to be wary of everything. We cannot afford to be in tourist mode.”

Colonel Cedric Du Gardin, who commands the FCR, is on his fifth tour of duty in southern Lebanon. He identifies with the views of Admiral Guillaud. “In contrast to Afghanistan, it is rare for us to engage in combat,” he said. “But if you use your weapon, even if it is just to fire warning shots in the air, then there will be consequences. It is a complicated mission because the soldiers out in the field need to have the intelligence and ability to ease the tension if there are incidents. They have to exercise restraint at all times and never react disproportionately. In Afghanistan it’s clear and simple. When you come under fire, you fire back.”

Although tensions remain high, the situation between Israel and Lebanon has been considered relatively stable for some years. Several incidents, however, have shattered the peace in the south of the country and sent a reminder to the UN that its mission is far from over. Throughout the night of November 28, rockets were fired across the border into Israel, which then hit back with force. That followed an incident in August this year when Israeli and Lebanese soldiers exchanged fire. Part of the ongoing problem stems from the fact that the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah, whose military wing has launched numerous attacks against Israel, has refused to disarm as stipulated by the 2006 ceasefire agreement.

If each UN peacekeeper spends 10 dollars a day...

In the past, French UN Peacekeepers, who have been trained for combat, have sometimes struggled to adapt to their mission. Keeping a low profile, dropping their usual “battle stance” and respecting local customs has not always been easy. In recent years, there have been several incidents between the local population and UNIFIL troops. In the summer of 2010, a French convoy was ambushed in Tulin and in November 2011 there was an altercation between the inhabitants of the southern Lebanese town of Abbassieh and Spanish soldiers who had prevented them from entering a field.

The residents in this region, however, play down these incidents, insisting they are becoming less and less frequent. Even if the presence of UN peacekeepers cannot guarantee peace, no one wants to see them pack up and move out.

For those who have closely observed the events in southern Lebanon, the presence of UN troops represents an important commitment from the international community to the Lebanese population. The blue helmets are at the very least an important source of income and employment for local people. “There are around 15,000 peacekeepers. If they each spend 10 dollars a day, we are talking about 150,000 dollars for the local economy,” said Abu Ali Yehya, who sells charcoal by the side of the main road to the town of Kafra.

Speaking in front of their shop near the town of Cana, Um Alaa and her husband, both supporters of Hezbollah, said they too were reassured by the presence of UN forces. It was here that a UN base where civilians had taken refuge was bombed by Israel in 1996, 10 years after a similar bombardment.

“There is no problem between Hezbollah and UNIFIL,” said Ms Alaa. “Why would there be? Hezbollah simply wants to defend southern Lebanon against Israel.”

Lebanese soldiers at the head of convoys

Former UNIFIL spokesman Timor Goksel claims Hezbollah, which currently dominates the Lebanese coalition government, needs the presence of the UN peacekeepers. “Even if the local Shiite political party does not like the soldiers meddling in their affairs, the peacekeepers act as a barrier and mean Israel cannot do as it pleases in the region,” said Goksel.

But he remains critical of the slow progress. “We should not still have 15,000 peacekeepers in southern Lebanon,” Goksel said. “Even if a problem arose, it would be impossible to coordinate the forces from 33 different countries. It is true the Lebanese army has funding issues and it cannot of course send all its troops to the area, but the international community should be putting pressure on the Lebanese state because it cannot continue to spend all this money deploying all these soldiers. There has to be a gentle withdrawal.”

Since it was reinforced in 2006, UNIFIL has also been tasked with supporting the Lebanese army, which up until then had not been deployed in the south. Today thousands of Lebanese troops are deployed in the area where they now conduct joint patrols with UN troops and some are even in charge of leading convoys. Colonel Du Gardin insists “UNIFIL’s aim is not to remain here permanently.”

Date created : 2011-11-30

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