NAQOURA, Lebanon: The head of the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Paulo Serra, vented his frustration at the rising tension between UNIFIL troops and local residents Friday.
Serra issued a stern warning against intercepting UNIFIL patrols and confiscating their equipment, saying that such actions were not only illegal, they could escalate, endangering both soldiers and civilians.
The UNIFIL chief was presumably referring to the faceoff between a Finnish contingent and residents of Bint Jbeil that erupted recently when a Finnish soldier attempted to take a photograph and was confronted by angry locals.
This is only the latest in a string of such incidents that have occurred between residents and international troops, usually involving a camera.
The UNIFIL mandate includes monitoring the cessation of hostilities along the Israeli-Lebanese border. In addition to being socially conservative, the area is also considered a Hezbollah security zone and locals are vigilant against perceived breaches.
“While we must respect the concerns of local communities, we also need to respect each other as people, soldiers, peacekeepers, and U.N. representatives,” Serra said.
He was speaking at an event at the UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura which was attended by Hezbollah MP Ali Fayyad, Amal Movement MP Abdel-Majid Saleh, MP Qassem Hashem, and senior commanders from the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL, along with religious figures.
“We are committed to exercising absolute respect for your privacy, customs and traditions,” he added.
Serra went on to denounce what he called misinformation spread by some media outlets.
“We are here with 12,000 troops from 37 different countries along with thousands of civil servants and foreigners working to support you, for your sake and with you, without any private national agendas, secret contact with counterparts or monitoring of activities outside the scope of the UNIFIL mandate.”
UNIFIL has struck back in recent weeks against media reports that its forces had uncovered a terrorist plot by monitoring phone calls inside a Palestinian camp in the south.
In addition to its rocky relationship with villages of the south, UNIFIL has also been targeted by sporadic bombings since its presence was strengthened following the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. On Dec. 9, 2011, five French soldiers and two civilians were wounded by a roadside bomb in Tyre.