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U.N. envoy: Lebanon facing critical test

Israel: Lebanese border troops must be accompanied


United Nations

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Lebanon faces a critical test in the coming days that will determine whether the country emerges as a strong democracy or finds itself plunged back into violence, U.N. Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Sunday.

"As we see it, Lebanon is now facing colossal opportunities," Roed-Larsen told reporters.

"There is a golden opportunity for Lebanon to solidify its democracy, to assert it authority, to produce a situation where Lebanon can be reconstructed and where Lebanese can live peacefully with its neighbors in prosperity. All this is at hand." (Watch why rights groups are investigating possible war crimes -- 3:17)

Roed-Larsen noted approvingly that Lebanese troops have deployed in the south, where they are charged with ensuring that Hezbollah militia do not launch rockets across the border into northern Israel.

Despite the "huge potential upside," Lebanon and the region also face a danger, he said.

"We're at the tilting edge still, and this can easily start sliding again and lead us quickly into the abyss of violence and bloodshed. This is why diplomacy is so important."

Roed-Larsen described his meetings since Friday with Lebanese leaders as "encouraging," and said they were committed to implementing Security Council Resolution 1701, which requires that Israeli troops withdraw from south Lebanon at the same time that Lebanese army troops and a beefed-up U.N. force of 15,000 troops enter the area.

The resolution also calls for the disarming of all militias, which would include Hezbollah.

He said 3,000 of a planned complement of 15,000 Lebanese soldiers have already been deployed along Lebanon's southern border, though their success in stabilizing the region is by no means guaranteed.

"Of course, the devil is in the details here," he said. "It's the nitty-gritty which can make us fail."

Roed-Larsen made no mention of Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz's comment Sunday that Israel will not allow Lebanese troops to deploy within two kilometers (1.25 miles) of the Israeli border unless they are accompanied by U.N. forces.

Roed-Larsen's delegation was to depart Sunday for Israel.

So far, 50 French military engineers have arrived in southern Lebanon, the first contingent of international reinforcements. They are part of the 200 soldiers that France has pledged to deploy to the region.

Rules of engagement

A "vanguard force" of 3,000 to 3,500 U.N. troops is not expected to arrive until later in the week, at the earliest.

They would support about 2,000 observers already on the ground as part of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.

Roed-Larsen predicted that the coming weeks and months would require "very demanding diplomatic work," including "cooperation from Iran and Syria."

Another 2,000 Lebanese soldiers -- the first complement of an expected 8,600 -- have been deployed along the country's eastern border with Syria, and as many as 1,000 have been deployed along the coast, he said.

The troops are expected to pave the way for a reconfigured and beefed-up UNIFIL in the south.

A mechanism has been set up for both forces to work together, Roed-Larsen said, with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora agreeing with UNIFIL force commander Gen. Alain Pellegrini to meet weekly with top security officials from both forces.

Vijay Nambiar, special adviser to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, predicted UNIFIL's rules of engagement will be made public in the next few days. "We expect that will generate interest among the major contributing countries to commit troops in more concrete terms," he said.

He described Israel's attack Saturday in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley as "unhelpful, to put it understated."

Siniora was less understated, calling the attack a "flagrant violation of hostilities."

Through a spokesman, Annan on Saturday called it a violation of the cease-fire resolution. (Full story)

But Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told CNN Sunday that the Israelis were entitled to act.

"We were seeing the transfer of illicit weapons" from Syria, he said. "That's a clear violation" of Resolution 1701.

Asked why Israel did not complain to the Security Council instead of acting unilaterally, Regev said the world body would not have acted fast enough to keep the arms from being transferred into Lebanon.

"I would remind the prime minister of Lebanon that it's his obligation under U.N. Resolution 1701 to be there on the border of Syria to prevent this illicit weapons transfer," he said.

Regev described as "speculation" a suggestion that the Israelis may have been searching for Israeli soldiers kidnapped last month by Hezbollah or looking for a leader of Hezbollah to capture or kill.

Lebanese minister disagrees with Bush

Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr on Sunday threatened to halt the deployment of his country's troops in the wake of Israel's raid.

Murr also said Hezbollah was committed to the cease-fire, and he warned that any group firing on Israel would be giving the Jewish state a pretext to strike. "Any rocket that is fired from the Lebanese territory would be considered collaboration with Israel," he told a news conference.

Lebanese Justice Minister Charles Rizk said he did not agree with U.S. President Bush's description Friday of Hezbollah as "a force of instability."

"Our view is that we should solve the problem of Hezbollah, the Hezbollah resistance and the Hezbollah weapons at its roots," Rizk told CNN. "And the root is the Israeli occupation."

Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000, but disputes remain over the Shebaa Farms, a roughly 30 square-kilometer (11 square-mile) stretch of land. Lebanon claims it as Lebanese territory, but the United Nations recognizes it as Syrian terrain.

The Lebanese government's Higher Relief Commission said 1,183 Lebanese people were killed in the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah, and 4,054 were wounded.

The commission estimated that nearly 90 percent of the displaced population had returned to their homes by Sunday, four days after the cessation of hostilities.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it is shifting its focus to providing shelter for those people whose homes have been destroyed in south Lebanon.

Of the 180,000 Lebanese who had sought shelter in Syria, more than 107,000 had returned to Lebanon, the UNHCR said.

As of Saturday, a U.N. appeal for Lebanon was 54 percent funded, with contributions of almost $89 million.

Israel has put its death toll from fighting and Hezbollah's rocket attacks at 159, with more than 1,000 Israelis wounded. More than a million people fled their homes in the north to shelters in the south during the war, Israeli officials said.

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