August 27, 2009 / 6:27 PM / 10 years ago

UN council extends Lebanon force with same mandate

* Israel seeks tougher U.N. action to stop weapons

* U.N. says that is responsibility of Lebanon

By Patrick Worsnip

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 27 (Reuters) - The Security Council extended on Thursday the mandate of U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon but sidestepped the issue of whether they could do more to stop Hezbollah building up an armed presence in the south.

Israel has criticized the UNIFIL force for not stopping weapons it says are flowing to Hezbollah guerrillas who might again bombard northern Israel with rockets as they did during a 2006 war. The United Nations says that is the primary responsibility of the Lebanese authorities.

On July 14, an arms dump exploded in the south Lebanese village of Khirbet Selim. Israel said the incident showed Hezbollah was stockpiling weapons in breach of Security Council resolution 1701, passed after the war.

UNIFIL is still investigating the blast. In a letter this month to the Security Council, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said there were signs the dump was Hezbollah-controlled although it appeared to have been in place for several years.

A resolution approved unanimously by the council extended UNIFIL’s mandate until Aug. 31, 2010. The force, currently 12,000-strong, has been in Lebanon in various forms since 1978 but was beefed up after the 2006 war.

Israeli Ambassador Gabriela Shalev told the council that following the July 14 incident, the extension "is an excellent opportunity for the Security Council and the (U.N. peacekeeping department) to further encourage UNIFIL to strengthen its good work."

Shalev told reporters earlier this week that Israel was not seeking changes to UNIFIL’s mandate, though council diplomats said privately that Israel made clear it would like UNIFIL to more aggressively counter any rearming by Hezbollah.

No changes to the mandate were provided for in Thursday’s resolution, which merely encouraged further coordination between UNIFIL and Lebanon’s army.

VIOLATIONS

The resolution expressed "deep concern" at the "serious violations" cited in Ban’s letter, but did not specifically mention the arms explosion or Israeli overflights of Lebanon, also a breach of resolution 1701 that Beirut regularly raises.

Thursday’s French-drafted text reaffirmed UNIFIL’s authority "to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind" but said it should take action "as it deems within its capabilities."

Ban’s Aug. 6 letter stated that the Lebanese authorities "have the primary responsibility to ensure that there are no unauthorized personnel, assets or weapons" between the Litani River and the Israeli border, and that UNIFIL merely helped.

UNIFIL says disarming Hezbollah is not in its mandate.

A war of words between Israel and Hezbollah has heated up in recent weeks as Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri seeks to form a cabinet expected to include civilian representatives of the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah group.

Hezbollah has said its guerrilla force is back to full strength after the 2006 war and has recently hinted it could add anti-aircraft missiles to its arsenal of short-range rockets and small arms.

Thursday’s resolution also endorsed a review of the force structure of UNIFIL that Ban plans to launch.

This will include an evaluation of UNIFIL’s naval task force, which Ban said was "stretched to the limits" because its original 12 vessels had been reduced to seven. (Editing by Alan Elsner)




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