The Force Commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) began urgent tripartite talks today in south Lebanon with senior Lebanese and Israeli army representatives to address Tuesday’s border skirmish that killed at least four people, Alain Le Roy, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, said today at a Headquarters news conference.
“It’s very important that this meeting is taking place,” Mr. Le Roy said. It would aim to determine why Israel and Lebanon exchanged fire and who ordered the shots, prevent their recurrence and address both sides’ reservations over parts of the United Nations-demarcated “Blue Line” separating the two countries. UNIFIL forces on the ground had commenced an investigation into the matter.
He said Tuesday’s incident was the most serious since 2006, when Security Council resolution 1701 effectively ended the border conflict between Israel and the Lebanese group Hizbullah. The deaths of two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and an Israeli officer Tuesday were the first casualties along the Blue Line since then.
Mr. Le Roy made his comments as he a briefed to correspondents on his trips in the past two weeks to Afghanistan, Sudan and Lebanon. He was joined at the briefing by Atal Khare, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping.
Mr. Le Roy said UNIFIL had determined that the tree uprooted by Israel, which caused the clashes between the warring sides near the southern Lebanese village of Adeisseh, was located south of the Blue Line inside Israel’s borders.
After learning early Tuesday, around 6:30 a.m., of Israel’s intention to uproot the tree and Lebanon’s objection to that, UNIFIL personnel asked Israel to postpone its removal, and tried to diffuse the situation on the ground to prevent violence.
Asked why the United Nations could not prevent the casualties, he said, despite’s UNIFIL’s best mitigation efforts and persuading Israel to delay the tree removal by approximately five hours, the Mission was unable to prevent the clashes, which began around 11:40 a.m.. But, it did achieve an immediate ceasefire afterwards through high-level talks with both sides.
He said no fire was directed at UNIFIL personnel and there was no evidence that Hizbullah was involved in the incident. He said Lebanese officials had stated they first had fired a warning shot, a claim Israel disputes.
Asked whether he had discussed the Blue Line with Lebanese officials during his trip, Mr. Le Roy said he been well received by Lebanon’s Prime Minister, just two days before the deadly incident. He also met with the Army Chief and other officials and there was no indication at that time that the skirmish would occur.
On United Nations preventive measures to prevent future clashes, he said the Organization set up the Blue Line in 2000 and had thus far demarcated more than 20 per cent of it. Despite their reservations over the line, both sides had agreed that it was for UNIFIL to ensure it was fully respected. The tripartite mechanism would aim to resolve those differences.
The Blue Line did not follow Israel’s security fence in several contested areas, often leading to misunderstandings. Asked about the fence, he said Israel had unilaterally built it south of the Blue Line in Israeli territory and that the tree uprooted was south of the fence.
Asked whether Israel’s occupation of Ghajar, in southern Lebanon, was fuelling tensions between the two sides, he said indeed it was and that the occupation clearly violated Council resolution 1701 (2006). The United Nations, he said, continued to insist that Israel leave the area.
Turning to his visit to Sudan, he said its purpose was to ensure that all international actors were united in pushing forward the Darfur peace process and the landmark referendum in January on the status of South Sudan. To help do that, the United Nations and the African Union would hold a consultative forum every other month with representatives of the Sudanese Government’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), and other regional actors. The United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS) was also helping technically and logistically to prepare for the referendum.
Asked why violence in Sudan had escalated since 2009, he attributed it to the withdrawal of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel group from peace talks in Doha, the absence altogether from the talks of the Abdul Wahid rebel faction, and divisions among internally displaced persons, particularly in Kalma camp in south Darfur, over whether to support the peace process, and the upcoming referendum.
Asked whether the deaths of three internally displaced persons in the Kalma Camp for supporting the peace process could set a precedent for increasing unrest between supporters and opponents, he said “Yes, we’re very concerned about the situation in Kalma camp because it can unravel to other camps.”
Within a few hours of the outbreak of clashes, the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) had received some 6,000 internally displaced persons seeking protection and had drastically increased the number of police and military personnel patrolling the camps. Civil affairs personnel were also trying to negotiate a dialogue between the two parties. Last night, the situation in the camp was calm.
Asked if the Secretary-General would appoint an eminent persons panel to monitor the referendums in January, he said the NCP and the SPLN had requested that in writing and that the Secretary-General was considering appointing a three-person panel, supported by 10 to 20 people on the ground, which would report directly to him, not UNAMID.
On restrictions governing the acquisition and use of attack helicopters by UNAMID, he said the mission had recently received five such helicopters from Ethiopia. In the past, it had been difficult to get authorization for them to fly, but procedures had since improved.
Mr. Khare added that most Sudanese Government-authorized flights were related to training, not operations of the tactical aviation unit. He said that issue would be discussed in the tripartite mechanism and that he hoped to soon see improvements on the ground.
Concerning establishment of a commission in the oil-rich Abyei region to organize a referendum in January to coincide with the one planned on South Sudan, Mr. Khare said it was crucial to create it as soon as possible. He added that the parties must appoint a secretary-general for the already established South Sudan Referendum Commission, which the United Nations planned to assist.
Turning to his trip to Afghanistan, Mr. Le Roy hailed the 20 July international conference in Kabul as a success and important milestone, which established clear benchmarks and commitments, and was attended by 80 delegations and 40 ministers.
Regarding United Nations peacekeeping overall, he said it remained at a historic high, with more than 120,000 personnel deployed worldwide. In September, a report would be issued on progress in implementing the “New Horizon” policy to advance the peacekeeping agenda.
Asked by a correspondent if the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) was logistically supporting battalions of the Congolese National Army (FARDC) to drive out forces of the Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda from Beni and North Kivu, a move that had left some 90,000 people displaced, Mr. Khare said MONUSCO was not. In addition, Mr. Le Roy refuted that correspondent’s claim that Chander Prakash, MONUSCO’s new Force Commander, did not speak French, saying he had a good working knowledge of the language.