UNITED NATIONS, (Reuters) – Beirut wants U.N. peacekeepers to stay in southern Lebanon at least through January 2007, it said on Tuesday, promising in the meantime to keep trying to extend its own authority to the South.
The request for the mandate of the U.N. force to be prolonged to Jan. 31, 2007, came in a Jan. 11 letter to Secretary-General Kofi Annan from Lebanese U.N. envoy Ibrahim Assaf. The letter was circulated at the world body on Tuesday.
The mandate of the 2,000-strong U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, will expire July 31 unless it is renewed by the U.N. Security Council. The 15-nation council is to discuss the mission in a closed-door meeting on Wednesday.
Annan and the Security Council have pressed Lebanon’s government to extend its authority across the South since Israel pulled out of the region in May 2000, ending 22 years of occupation.
After the Israeli withdrawal, the militant group Hizbollah dominated the area, profiting from a power vacuum there. Hizbollah guerrillas have since sporadically clashed with Israel forces.
Hizbollah last year entered into the Lebanese government, the first formed since a September 2004 Security Council resolution demanding that all armed groups on Lebanese soil be disarmed and dismantled.
Largely as a result of that U.N. resolution, neighboring Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April 2005.
But the new government has shied from trying to disarm Hizbollah, which has strong popular support.
Assaf’s letter made no mention of Hizbollah but accused Israel of repeatedly violating Lebanese airspace and failing to respect its sovereignty.
He said UNIFIL’s continued presence in the South was needed to ensure Israel respects the border it shares with Lebanon.
But the government also “reaffirms its firm intention to preserve the security of the southern region where the Lebanese security forces continue to reinforce their presence in order to prevent acts undermining security,” his letter said.