Italy has said it will reduce its contingent in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon by nearly a third following an attack on its troops on Friday that has local Lebanese wondering whether the uprising in Syria has bled over into their own country.
UNIFIL spokesman Neeraj Singh has denied the report, however, and sought to calm fears, telling The Beirut Daily Star that any reduction had already been in the works earlier on. “We haven't had any notification of Italy reducing its troops. There were reports in both the Italian and Lebanese media about Italy reducing its troops, so this is nothing new,” he said.
The bombing, which wounded eight soldiers, struck a UNIFIL logistics convoy Friday as it passed just north of the southern coastal city of Sidon. In addition to six Italians, two Lebanese troops were also injured by the blast.
Italian Defense Minister Ignazio Larussa reportedly told journalists following the bombing, “Our country will withdraw 618 soldiers out of an original 1,718 that are stationed in Lebanon, but we do not wish to leave Lebanon.” UNIFIL is tasked with maintaining the peace between Lebanon and Israel. Its original mandate, to prevent the Hizbullah terrorist organization from rearming, has proved impossible to fulfill. Nevertheless, the force has managed to maintain quiet on Israel's northern border, with a few exceptions, since the end of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, in part due to the increase in the number of troops provided.
Now, Lebanon's Al-Balad newspaper has asked in reporting on the incident Saturday, “Have regional developments begun to negatively impact on Lebanon? Is the first 'indicator of the crisis' the targeting of the U.N. peacekeepers in the south?”
The question came in response to threats by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who last week warned the European Union it would regret the sanctions imposed last Monday on President Bashar al-Assad and other Syrian officials.
“I say this measure, just as it will harm Syria's interests, it will harm Europe's interest,” Muallem warned. “And Syria won't remain silent about this measure... The president is our leader, we will continue with that, and I am sure that we will emerge from this crisis stronger,” he said.
Assas and nine other senior government officials have been added to a black list of those banned from traveling to the EU and subject to having their assets frozen. Earlier sanctions banned 13 of Assad's closest allies, and imposed an arms embargo.
EU foreign ministers have threatened still more if Assad does not stop the violence against his own people – which Assad has blamed on “Islamists and foreign powers.”
The rising tide of grassroots protesters calling for Assad's overthrow has swelled into a mass movement spanning the country despite the growing violence.
Nearly 1,000 people had been killed by the time sanctions were imposed, and thousands of others have been detained, beaten and tortured. Others have simply disappeared – but the protests are continuing.