BEIRUT, 5 Feb 2006 (IRIN) - Amid rising tension along the southern border with Israel last week, the UN Security Council announced a six-month extension of its peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and called on Beirut to exert more control over the south.
"The situation was very serious compared to the relative calm dominating in the previous few weeks," said Milos Strugar, a UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) spokesman.
UN peacekeepers monitoring the so-called Blue Line - a border demarcation drawn by the UN for the purposes of determining whether Israel had withdrawn from southern Lebanon - brokered, on Friday, a halt to an exchange of fire, which had started on the Lebanese side.
The armed clash, in the contested Shebaa Farms area, lasted for about an hour and a half, according to a UN spokesman.
In Resolution 1655, adopted on 30 January, the Security Council extended the mandate of UNIFIL by six months to 31 July 2006. The peacekeeping mission was created in 1978 after the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.
The Israelis finally withdrew in 2000.
UNIFIL's initial mandate was to confirm the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, restore international peace and security and help the Lebanese government reinstate effective authority in the area, which is yet to be completed.
Hizbullah, an armed Shi'ite group which locals credit with defending the south until the Israeli pullout, became de facto ruler of the region in the wake of the withdrawal. The group went on to win all 17 contested seats for southern Lebanon in a June 2005 election.
The UN encouraged Beirut to enter into a dialogue with Hezbollah, which it has informally done. "We are encouraging this dialogue to continue," Terje-Roed Larsen told reporters in November.
Roed-Larsen is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Envoy for implementing Security Council resolution 1559.
Issued in 2004, the Resolution calls on the disarmament of all armed militias in Lebanon such as Hizbullah and Palestinian groups.
In the latest resolution, the Security Council urged the Lebanese government "to do more to assert its authority in the south, to exert control and monopoly over the use of force and to maintain law and order on its entire territory".
In an 18 January report, Kofi Annan said control of the Blue Line and surrounding areas seemed to remain with Hizbullah for the most part. Annan also noted that, twice within the last six months, "unidentified armed elements fired rockets from Lebanese territory across the Blue Line towards Israel".
"Calling on the Lebanese government to assert its authority in the south is nothing new," said Strugar. "This demand has been there since the creation of the UNIFIL."
"Because the area was occupied for 20 years, the government was unable to implement this demand," he added.
According to Strugar, since the withdrawal of Israeli troops, the southern territories have been gradually reintegrated into the rest of the country, but this process has yet to be completed.
While the Lebanese Army operates in some of the areas vacated by Israel, it remains at a distance from the Blue Line.
At the request of UNIFIL, the Lebanese Army Liaison Office has been co-located with UNIFIL headquarters since December 2005 and new liaison officers have been appointed.
Encouraging this cooperation, Resolution 1655 urged for the establishment of a "Joint Planning Cell", to draw up a plan for the extension of Lebanese authority into the UNIFIL area of operation. This would include the deployment of the Lebanese Army further south.
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