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U.N. secretary-general calls for sharp cuts in Lebanon peacekeeping force

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Despite lingering tensions along the Israeli-Lebanese border, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommended Wednesday that the number of U.N. peacekeepers there be cut by more than half by July 2002.

In a report to the U.N. Security Council, Annan recommended that the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which now numbers about 5,600, be trimmed to about 3,600 by the end of October. If the situation does not worsen by the end of the year, he said, the force could be cut to 2,000 by July 2002.

Annan said UNIFIL, which was established in 1978, has essentially completed two of its three main tasks: confirming Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon and assisting, as much as possible, the return of Lebanese forces to the areas vacated by Israel. Lebanon's failure to deploy its army in the south drew criticism from Annan on Wednesday.

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Its final task is restoring international peace and security, which involves UNIFIL helping to maintain the cease-fire along the line of withdrawal, known as the Blue Line. Annan recommended that task be handled by a combination of armed infantry and unarmed observers, with fewer fixed positions to limit the number of personnel needed for guard and maintenance duties.

Annan also recommended deploying most troops in protected positions close to the Blue Line, while leaving UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura covered by a separate guard. The demining unit will be maintained "since mines will remain a serious hazard for the Force for the time being," the report said.

"Pending a comprehensive peace, UNIFIL seeks to maintain the cease-fire along the Blue Line through patrols, observation from fixed positions and close contact with the parties, the latter with a view to correcting violations and preventing escalation," Annan's report said.

When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon last May, the United Nations expected the Lebanese Army to deploy there. But even though that did not happen, the Security Council has decided that UNIFIL will not serve as a buffer force along the border, despite continuing tension in the area.

Pointing to almost-daily Israeli aircraft violations of Lebanese airspace, an Israeli attack against a Syrian radar position, and "serious breaches" of the border in the Shab'a farms area, where Hezbollah guerrillas and Israelis have traded mortar and artillery attacks, Annan said, "These incidents are a matter of serious concern as they have the potential to further exacerbate tension."

He added, "I have been in touch with the parties concerned and other interested parties to urge respect for the Blue Line and to avert further escalation."

CNN U.N. Producer Ronni Berke contributed to this report.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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