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PRESS CONFERENCE BY LEBANON FORCE COMMANDER

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

5 September 2007

Following the Security Council’s decision on 24 August to extend the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for another 12 months, the Force’s Commander said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon that he looked forward to the continued support of the international community.

The Commander of UNIFIL, Major General Claudio Graziano, said that the adoption of resolution 1773 (2007) was a testament to the international community’s will and determination to stabilize the situation in Lebanon and strengthen security in the area. He appreciated the fact that the Council had emphasized the need for further coordination between UNIFIL and the Lebanese Armed Forces, highlighting that their deployment together had helped to establish a new strategic environment in southern Lebanon. It was also important that the Council had underlined the necessity for UNIFIL to have at its disposal all the necessary means and equipment to fulfil its mandate.

The Council had also energetically called upon all the parties to abide scrupulously by their obligation to respect the safety of UNIFIL and other United Nations personnel, he continued. Finally, it had supported the initiative to strengthen UNIFIL’s investigation capabilities in response to any attack, providing for so-called forensic capabilities.

UNIFIL had originally been established in 1978 to confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, restore international peace and security and assist the Lebanese Government in restoring its effective authority in the area. Providing background information on the mission, Major General Graziano said that, under the terms of resolution 1701 (2006), which was adopted by the Security Council following the July/August crisis last year, the enhanced “new UNIFIL” was a Chapter VI mission. The role of “UNIFIL-II” was to assist the parties and work together with each of them to make sure they fully implemented the relevant provisions of 1701 and respected the cessation of hostilities. It was important to remember that, as main actors, the Lebanese authorities and the Armed Forces remained in charge of security and law and order in southern Lebanon.

At the same time, UNIFIL had been given substantial authority to act independently, as necessary, he continued. All the parties were now formally compliant with the mission, but should there be any risk of a resumption of hostile activities, UNIFIL’s rules of engagement allowed it to respond as required. The commanders had enough authority to act forcefully when confronted with hostile activity of any kind.

Progress had been made in many areas, he said: the situation between the Litani River and the Blue Line had been mostly quiet; the cessation of hostilities had been generally maintained; and the parties seemed determined to respect the agreements. One of the biggest achievements of resolution 1701 had been the return and deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces in the south of Lebanon, where they represented legality and a new strategic situation in the field. Now, the focus was on setting up adequate security arrangements to prevent the resumption of hostilities. Together with the Lebanese Armed Forces, the mission was also taking concrete measures to ensure that the area of operations was free from any other armed personnel and certain weapons. Another important achievement was tripartite meetings run by UNIFIL, with participation of Israel Defense Forces and Lebanese Armed Forces officers. Among other recent developments, which showed that work still remained to be done, he mentioned two terrorist attacks against UNIFIL and a rocket attack against Israel.

To a question about Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, he replied such violations happened every day, and the mission took them very seriously. The overflights were a serious violation of the authority of the Lebanese authorities. The issue had been raised during the tripartite meetings, and the answer from the Israel Defense Forces had been that violations would continue as long as the two kidnapped Israeli soldiers were not given back to their families and there was no secure control of the borders to avoid any smuggling to Lebanon through other countries. Of course, the matter had to be resolved through a political process and confidence-building measures.

Regarding unexploded cluster bombs, he said: “We are doing a good job.” The job was 60 per cent finished, and the number of incidents had decreased dramatically. He hoped that, by the end of the year, the main part of the problem would be solved. However, the Force had unfortunately lost a French peacekeeper a month ago to such munitions, and UNMAC -- an organization involved in “declusterizing” the area -- had also lost a dependent a couple of weeks ago.

He added that, recently, the Force had asked its Israeli counterpart for additional information, and was waiting for it.

How could the mission prevent weapons from entering Lebanon through the Syrian border? a correspondent asked. Mr. Graziano replied that the United Nations had given him a lot of authority and responsibility, but also a specific area of operation. The Syrian border was not part of that area. According to resolution 1701, on the request of the Government of Lebanon, the mission could cooperate in checking and supporting the entry points, but the Government had not made such a request.

Responding to another question, he said that the problem of weapons was an important one, as was the disarmament of militias. Their final solution required a political process and involvement of all the parties. The Force was running some 400 patrols every day and enforcing its mandate to the fullest extent. “Nobody can move with weapons, except us, and nobody is moving with weapons, except some shepherds that normally have been arrested by the Lebanese Armed Forces,” he said. Of course, after 30 years of war, UNIFIL was still finding caves and bunkers containing old weapons and ammunition. Most probably, there were still many weapons around the southern part of Lebanon that had to be removed. That would require a lot of effort.

Asked to comment on reports that Hizbullah had “pretty much come back to its strength from before the war”, he said that he had recently read an interview by the Minister of Defence of Israel, who said that, in his opinion, Hizbullah was operating out of the reach of UNIFIL. It was his belief, as well.

To a related question, he said that, having received votes from up to 60 per cent of the population, Hizbullah had not disappeared from southern Lebanon, but UNIFIL was not dealing with it as an organization. An allegation about a UNIFIL officer having relations with Hizbullah was totally false. The Force spoke only with the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Government of Lebanon. “If they speak to Hizbullah as a party, it is up to them. If the Foreign Minister was Hizbullah, I would speak with him.”

Regarding an investigation on the recent deaths of Spanish peacekeepers, he said that there was more than one investigation: there was one by UNIFIL, one by the national authorities of Spain and another run by the Lebanese authorities, who had asked for the Force’s cooperation. At the time of the incident, the mission had had no investigative capability, but following the adoption of the latest resolution, such capability would be deployed shortly. It was clear, however, that the attack had targeted UNIFIL. As a prominent Lebanese politician had said, the Force was one of the few institutional organizations that represented stability and had the ability to keep the situation under control. “So if you are a terrorist and you don’t want progress in peacebuilding… you have to move against those institutions,” he said.

To several questions about recent events in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, he said that he saluted the efforts of the Lebanese Armed Forces in the battle against terrorists there. Having suffered many casualties, the Lebanese Armed Forces had gained prestige, but he was sure that terrorists could still be found around the country. On the other hand, the Lebanese authorities had clearly demonstrated that there was a line that could not be crossed. All the parties in Lebanon had supported the actions of the army as a positive step.

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For information media • not an official record



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