BRUSSELS, Aug 18, 2006 (AFP) - France faced criticism in the European press on Friday for not offering more troops for southern Lebanon, which was seen as jeopardizing the UN force's difficult task of imposing peace.
"France has relaxed the pressure at a vital moment," The Times of London said, accusing Paris in an editorial of backing down from earlier indications that it was ready to play the leading role in the enlarged UN force.
"For France to have retreated from a key role to the realm of 'symbolic' gestures 'symbolises' only one thing: a French loss of nerve," it said after having previously praised French efforts to find a solution to the crisis.
Despite expectations that France would provide the bulk of a planned 15,000 strong UN force, Paris said Thursday it would send just 200 troops to reinforce the UN mission in Lebanon.
While it said France was prepared to command the enlarged force, it also called for safety guarantees for its soliders before making further commitments.
The enlarged peacekeeping force is the keystone in UN Resolution 1701, which outlines the ceasefire and a deployment of Lebanese and international troops to the south of the country to fill the vacuum left by withdrawing Israeli units.
Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita said: "France made a huge diplomatic effort so that resolution 1701 could be voted. Now it's France that is holding up the application of this resolution."
It said that "Paris does not want its soldiers to run the risk of being caught in the crossfire, with Hezbollah militants on one side and the Israeli army on the other".
Italian newspaper La Repubblica, said France had discovered "that it was afraid" while La Stampa said that Paris and Rome "fear another Bosnia".
Many potential contributors to the force, including France, have expressed concern over the role their soldiers will play and have sought assurances from the United Nations and Lebanon on the conditions of the deployment.
Defending the government's decision, leftwing French newspaper Liberation said France was right to demand a clearer mandate before sending more troops.
"When a country such as France is to commit thousands of men for years to a situation that has everything in place to become a quagmire, it's better to have a clear mission. Chirac is in his right to demand a minimum of ambiguities," it said.
In a similar vein, conservative French newspaper Le Figaro said: "This is a highly dangerous mission. If France volunteered to lead it's because it's an opportunity to make a comeback in the Middle East, where (France) has been sidelined by American unilateralism.
"However, the rest of the world cannot step aside and leave France holding the hot potato alone with a help from a few Europeans and the inevitable blue helmets from Fiji."
But Spanish newspaper El Mundo warned that caution could cost the force its effectiveness.
"The reticence shown by France to provide the majority of the 15,000 blue helmets could slow the deployment", it said.
While taking a broader European view, Spanish newspaper El Pais echoed a similar warning, saying that "European countries' doubts about the complexity and the risk of the UN mission in southern Lebanon endanger the deployment of the 15,000 troops."
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