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Press conference by force commanders of United Nations peacekeeping operations

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Despite the fragile situation in southern Lebanon, both sides were respecting resolution 1701 (2006) — which calls for a full cessation of hostilities between Hizbullah and Israel — the Commander of United Nations troops in the area said at a Headquarters press conference today.

“Calm is prevailing,” said Major General Paolo Serra, Commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which is mandated to monitor the cessation of hostilities, assist the Government and Armed Forces of Lebanon and support the local population.

UNIFIL was “welcomed and respected” by both sides and its presence had helped to facilitate trilateral negotiations aimed at preventing further hostilities, he continued. The mission’s presence offered Israel and Lebanon the chance to move forward to a full ceasefire and eventually to long-lasting peace, and it would remain in the country as long as was necessary, he said, adding, that the mission was currently in talks aimed at enabling the Lebanese Armed Forces to take over security responsibilities.

Accompanying General Serra was Major General Iqbal Singh Singha, Force Commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF); Major General Delali Johnson Sakyi, Force Commander of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), and Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, Force Commander of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO). Each provided updates on latest developments and on the mandates of their respective operations.

General Singha said UNDOF had faced growing challenges and a “dynamically changing environment” in the past year. Syrian security forces and armed rebels had regularly entered the buffer zone and there had been exchanges of fire with them, as well as Israeli troops. The Force had been subjected to abductions, carjackings, weapons snatchings, and vandalism of its equipment. Four troop-contributing countries had pulled their troops out of the mission, and the Force had modified its approach, reducing its operational footprint, ending night patrols, and deploying additional armoured cars. But its positions still got caught in crossfire, and despite structural improvements made to posts, it was “lucky that we haven’t had any casualties”.

General Sakyi said that a lack of helicopters was the main problem that UNMISS faced in fulfilling its mandate. He called for the deployment of more such assets so that the Mission could better protect civilians. Conflict between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and armed groups was the Mission’s main concern, but it was also working to protect civilians from inter-communal violence that was usually caused by cattle-raiding and disputes over grazing rights. Combatants were “armed to the teeth” and mobilizing youth in support of their objectives.

General Cruz said there was a “very, very sad history of human rights violations” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where MONUSCO’s main challenges were the prevalence of violence, including rape, against women and children, and recruitment by armed groups. The 20,000 soldiers deployed with MONUSCO were operating under a mandate that created a new peacekeeping posture for the United Nations, and they were adapting to that. They dealt with a “very complex” situation affecting the whole region and in which members of armed groups crossed borders to escape detection. A political framework in place to deal with that required the full commitment of all actors if the situation was to be improved.

When asked if the European Union’s decision to begin providing arms to rebels in Syria affected UNIFIL’s neutrality, General Serra said there were no European Union activities there. All activity took place under a United Nations mandate, and the embargo referred to Syria, not Lebanon.

Asked whether the presence of a large number of troops from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries affected UNIFIL’s neutrality, General Serra said the Force protected both sides. He added that the mandate was very clear: supporting peace in the area and aiding movement from “cessation of hostilities” to a permanent ceasefire. Any violations, “from shepherds to overflights”, were reported.

In response to a question about Syrian refugees in southern Lebanon, General Serra said the refugee numbers were “embarrassing”. Five hundred thousand had been registered by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a similar number were awaiting registration. With a population of only 4 million, Lebanon’s institutions were under an “enormous burden”, he said, adding that he did not know if any refugees around the Shebaa Farms area were Syrian rebels or not.

As for a question about the impact of the Syrian situation on Lebanon, General Serra said he foresaw no change in UNIFIL’s mandate.

Asked about two battalions of Congolese soldiers implicated in rape incidents, and whether two arrests were enough, General Cruz said nine commanders had been removed and prosecutions were proceeding.

Responding to a question about the arrival of unmanned airborne vehicles, or “drones”, General Cruz said they would be operational in September. Drones were very important for information gathering and would support military decision-making.

When a questioner asked whether the other Force Commanders were “jealous” to see drones deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, General Serra said he would like better equipment for monitoring the “Blue Line”.

General Sakyi said he was “not jealous” of the deployment, but he was currently using infrared devices mounted on helicopters from Rwanda for detection, although he was seeking additional equipment, and would welcome drones for identifying flashpoints and ensuring that proper conflict-mitigation efforts were employed.

Asked about violations of the Blue Line, General Serra said there was no Hizbullah activity south of the Litani River, and if there was, it was undetectable. Israeli overflights were easier to detect because they left a trace on radar, he added.

When asked whether the UNIFIL mandate should be expanded in order to respond to Hizbullah’s rearmament, he said he was focused on supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces south of the Litani.

Asked about the biggest security issues in South Sudan, and whether the Government of Sudan was arming rebels in its southern neighbour, General Sakyi replied that Jonglei State and the Tri-State areas were the worst affected by cattle-raiding. Raiders used sophisticated arms, including grenades and rocket-propelled grenades, he said, adding that the raids provoked revenge attacks and had a serious impact on civilians.

When asked whether drones could help UNIFIL, General Serra said new technology would be very useful.

In response to a question about the readiness of the intervention brigade and the general security situation in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, General Cruz said all forces would work under the same mandate and with the same accountability and responsibility rules applying. The security situation had not deteriorated, he added.

Responding to a question about possible Hizbullah operations south of the Litani, General Serra said there was no open presence there, and the only people bearing arms were from the Lebanese army. Unarmed people in civilian clothes were considered civilians, he said.

To a question about the neutrality of the intervention brigade, and whether its activities could cause problems for the rest of MONUSCO, General Cruz reiterated that the mandate was the same for all forces, adding that whatever force was nearest to a call for help would help.