France, US compromise to renew UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -The United Nations Security Council voted on Thursday to extend a long-running peacekeeping mission in Lebanon for another year after a compromise was reached between France and the United States on language about the freedom of movement of U.N. troops.

The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) - established in 1978 - patrols Lebanon's southern border with Israel. The mandate for the operation is renewed annually, and its current authorization was due to expire on Thursday.

The French-drafted text was adopted with 13 votes in favor and abstentions by Russia and China. A planned Wednesday vote was delayed as France, the United States and the United Arab Emirates argued over language on U.N. freedom of movement.

France kept language in the resolution that spells out that peacekeepers should coordinate with the Lebanese government.

But in a compromise with the U.S. and the UAE, France added back in text from last year's council resolution - which it had deleted - that demands all parties allow "announced and unannounced patrols" by U.N. troops.

"The ability of the UNIFIL personnel to carry out their responsibilities, independent of any restrictions, is essential," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told the council.

"And we've had long-standing concerns regarding the actions by some actors to obstruct the mission's freedom of movement," she said. "The resolution adopted today includes language strongly reaffirming UNIFIL's full freedom of movement."

Lebanon's caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, welcomed the mandate's renewal in a statement, saying it included a clause requested by Lebanon that required UNIFIL carry out its work "in coordination with the Lebanese government."

The peacekeeping renewal comes amid an escalating war of words between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon with each vowing to return the other to the "stone age" and preparing for possible conflict even as they deny seeking one.

UNIFIL's mandate was expanded in 2006, following a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, to allow peacekeepers to help the Lebanese army keep parts of the south free of weapons or armed personnel other than those of the Lebanese state.

That has sparked friction with Hezbollah, which effectively controls southern Lebanon despite the presence of the Lebanese army. Hezbollah is a heavily armed party that is Lebanon's most powerful political force.

In December, an Irish peacekeeper was killed when his UNIFIL vehicle came under fire in southern Lebanon. A Lebanese military tribunal has accused members of Hezbollah of involvement in the killing. Hezbollah has officially denied involvement.

UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti told Reuters that the resolution reiterated the body's "continued coordination with the government of Lebanon" as it carried out "its tasks independently," and said the essential mandate had not changed.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Maya Gebeily; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis)