Lebanon: Hezbollah-EU, concerns for Italian UN troops

UNIFIL area stronghold of Shiite 'terrorist organization'

23 July, 20:10

    (ANSAmed) - BEIRUT, JULY 23 - The calm reigning in southern Lebanon is not enough to quell concerns for the over 1,000 Italian UNIFIL peacekeeping troops deployed along the border with Israel. The region is a stronghold of Hezbollah militias, declared a 'terrorist organization' on Monday by the EU. ''The situation is calm. We continue to carry out our work and our activities as normal,'' ANSA was told by Nadette Miday, spokesperson for the United Nations force that includes 12,000 soldiers from 37 countries under the command of the Italian general Paolo Serra. ''Our strategic partner on the ground is the Lebanese Army, with whom we continue to coordinate activities and with whom we have good relations.'' But it cannot be ignored that this part of Lebanese territory is one of the strongholds of the Shiite militia allied with Iran and Syria. Hezbollah's armed wing, considered by many to be stronger than Lebanese government forces, could retaliate against the soldiers of the 12 European countries taking part in the mission. ''Of course this is of concern, since we are on the front lines,'' said an authoritative Italian observer in Lebanon who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''But at the same time I have to ask myself what interest Hezbollah would have in reacting, while its fighters are already engaged in Syria and against a European Union that has left the possibility of dialogue with the political wing of the Shiite movement open, and given the Italian humanitarian aid that continues to be sent.'' Aid to the population of southern Lebanon are one of the main activities of the Italian Cooperation and several Italian NGOs working in the country, and are one of the ways to maintain good relations with local residents and authorities. There are currently 16 projects, from demining operations to rural community development in the Tyre province, the restoration of the castle of Shamaa, where the Italian troops are headquartered, and fisheries development in Naqoura, where the UNIFIL headquarters are located. These activities cost several million euros and require constant cooperation with mayors, who in this region are almost all members of Hezbollah and the allied Shiite movement Amal.

    ''Town council administrators,'' the Italian observer said, ''are excluded from the sanctions decided on by the EU, and therefore the collaboration will continue.'' On Tuesday Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, who has been trying to form a national unity government for four months, criticized the decision taken by Brussels. The decision may further complicate his task, as with its ministers and those of its allies, Hezbollah was the largest group in the outgoing government. The head of the EU delegation in Beirut, Angelina Eichhorst, has sought to reassure the Lebanese by saying that the EU would work with any government that represents all of parties, even if Hezbollah is part of it. (ANSAmed).

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