Middle East

Lebanon UN force urges co-operation with peacekeepers

Maj Gen Alberto Asarta Cuevas, 8 July
Image caption Maj Gen Alberto Asarta Cuevas has appealed for dialogue

The head of the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon has appealed for calm, following recent incidents in which villagers attacked soldiers.

Locals were angered by what they saw as plans by the UN force to undermine the Hezbollah militant group in the event of a renewed conflict with Israel.

The area is a Hezbollah stronghold.

In an open letter to residents, Maj Gen Alberto Asarta Cuevas said the best way to deal with any concerns was through dialogue, not by beating peacekeepers.

In the latest of the clashes, villagers on Saturday disarmed a French patrol of UN peacekeepers in the village of Tuline and attacked them with sticks, rocks and eggs before the army intervened.

Residents have complained that Unifil has stepped up its patrols in southern Lebanon, which has been under the de facto control of Hezbollah since the withdrawal of Israeli forces in 2000.

Open letter

Image caption There have been a series of clashes between residents and peacekeepers

"As you all know, some recent incidents have cast a shadow on the positive environment in which Unifil peacekeepers have been working, in close co-ordination with the Lebanese army, for your safety and security," Maj Gen Cuevas said in a rare open letter released on Thursday.

The UN commander said Unifil respected the privacy and property of the villagers in the south, and that problems should be resolved by discussion "not by obstructing the work of the peacekeepers or by beating them".

Tensions in southern Lebanon have increased after recent Israeli claims that weapons were flowing in to Hezbollah fighters.

On Wednesday, the Israeli military published an aerial photograph purporting to show Hezbollah weapons caches in the southern Lebanese village of al-Khiam.

Following the recent clashes, Hezbollah - which fought a devastating 2006 war with Israel - urged the peacekeepers to stick to their mandate.

"Unifil should always carry out its role... in a way so as not to arouse mistrust and worry of citizens as was the case during the latest exercises," Hezbollah's number two, Naim Qassem, said in a newspaper interview.

The UN Security Council is due to meet later on Friday, at France's request, to discuss the confrontations and reaffirm the peacekeeping force's right to free movement.

The UN force was originally formed in 1978 after Israeli troops entered southern Lebanon and began a 22-year occupation.

Security Council Resolution 1701, that ended the 2006 war, expanded the mandate of Unifil and paved the way for the Lebanese army to deploy in the sensitive border area.

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