Major General Asarta Cuevas, the head of the United Nations peace keeping force in southern Lebanon, has written an open letter to the residents of the region appealing for calm. The letter comes in the wake of several acrimonious confrontations between soldiers serving in the UN Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) and local inhabitants. These confrontations escalated alarmingly last week, with civilians stealing peacekeepers’ weapons and wounding one of the blue helmets.
It is reported that the rise in tension has been triggered by rumours that UNIFIL peacekeepers have begun to patrol more aggressively, while at the same time reducing co-operation with the Lebanese army. Cuevas was keen to deny these rumours, stating in his letter that UNIFIL works in close co-operation with government forces.
The region is predominantly Sh’ite and is considered to be a stronghold of the militant Hizbollah movement, who’s war with Israel in 2006 led to an extension and expansion of UNIFIL’s mandate under the terms of UN security council resolution 1701. Western diplomats have been briefing that the Shi’ia group is behind the recent confrontations; a charge that Hizbollah denies.
The openSecurity verdict: Originally deployed in 1978 to supervise Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, the expansion of UNIFIL’s mandate following the 2006 Summer War has undoubtedly hindered Hizbollah’s capabilities. It has stopped short, however, of interdicting arms supplies from Syria and Iran unless directly asked to do so by the Lebanese government.
Israeli protests have increased in urgency over recent months, with the government claiming that Hizbollah has received Scud missiles from Syria. Pressure from Jerusalem may be behind an increase in tempo in UNIFIL operations, aiming to assuage Israel’s security concerns. In doing so, Cuevas’ troops would be treading a road familiar to all blue helmets, from Sarajevo to Kigali; striving to impartially discharge their mandate while being accused by both sides in a conflict zone of aiding and abetting the enemy.
The chief danger here is to Hizbollah. If events should further escalate and a peacekeeper is seriously injured or killed, the Shi’ia group will, fairly or not, be held accountable. Such an incident would be a public relations boon to an Israeli government sorely in need of material benefitting its international image. It may also lead to a hardening of the international community’s attitude to not only Hizbollah, but also Iran, a key supporter of the organisation, and its nuclear programme. For his own sake and that of Lebanon, Hizbollah’s general secretary Hasan Nasrallah must work to cool tempers within his organisation and the wider Shi’ia community.
Russia and US carry out prisoner exchange
It was reported on Friday that a US plane had landed in Vienna carrying ten men and women convicted of spying for the Russian government with an aim to conducting a prisoner exchange. From Moscow’s side, President Dimitry Medvedev has pardoned four Russian citizens previously found guilty of espionage, including Igor Sutyagin, a nuclear scientist, who had earlier been transferred to the capital from an arctic prison.
According to John Rodriguez, lawyer for convicted Russian agent Vicky Pelaez, his client had been informed by a Russian official that, on her return, she will receive $2,000 a month and free housing for the rest of her life. It is not clear what arrangements will be made for her fellow agents, nor the four pardoned men who spied for the US.
Both sides have kept this exchange low key. The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the exchange is being made against the background of ‘an overall improvement of the US-Russia ties and giving them new dynamics.’ Analysts suggest that the swiftness of the exchange reflects a desire in both and Washington and Moscow to minimise any damage the outing of the Russian spies might do to a diplomatic relationship which, following a protracted chill during the Bush years, has recently begun to thaw.
Pakistan bomb attack kills more than forty people
On Friday, Pakistan was again struck by a Taliban bomb attack which claimed at least 45 dead. There is currently confusion over the number of wounded, with the Pakistan government claiming that forty people had been hurt, with hospital staff on the ground saying that over eighty were being treated for serious wounds. The precise means of the attack are also unclear. What is known is that two separate blasts struck a commercial neighbourhood near the offices of the political agent in the Mohmand region of Pakistan’s restive tribal area along the border with Afghanistan.
Local administration official Mehraj Khan has stated that it was a suicide attack, but there are no details about how the second blast occurred. The attack comes one week after two bombers struck a Sufi shrine in Lahore, killing at least 42 people. The continuing wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan mirrors ongoing and increasingly bitter combat between the Pakistani army and militants across the northwest frontier province. To date, two military offensives have targeted militants out of the Swat valley and have swept into South Waziristan, reaching as far as Orakzai. While the bombers struck Momand on Friday, Pakistan Airforce fighter-bombers attacked Taliban positions. According to Pakistan security sources, over a dozen Taliban fighters were killed.
New CENTCOM head raises eyebrows
The appointment of marine General James N. Mattis to the post of commander of the United States Central Command has caused consternation among certain commentators in light of controversial comments he has made in past speeches. Referred to as ‘blunt’ by The New York Times, Al Jazeera has labelled him the ‘brawler general’. The latter is a reference to a speech made by Mattis during a panel discussion in 2005, where he affirmed that ‘I like brawling.’ In comments that earned him a rebuke from his superiors, he went on to say in the speech that in Afghanistan ‘you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil…guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.’
Defence Secretary Robert Gates defended the appointment, saying that Mattis had learnt from the experience, and that he was confident the new commander could ‘speak publicly about the matters for which he is responsible in an entirely appropriate way.’ The appointment comes after a Pentagon shake up following the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal as head of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan and his subsequent replacement by Mattis’ predecessor, David Petraeus.