UNIFIL chief stresses ties with Southerners

United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Force commander Major General Claudio Graziano said on Monday that Southerners and peacekeepers “shared a unique relationship woven together by strands of peace.” “UNIFIL is about Lebanon … we are not just in Lebanon but we are here for Lebanon,” Graziano said during the inauguration ceremony of the UNIFIL Photo Exhibition at Tyre’s Cultural Center.

The exhibition, depicting the activities of UNIFIL in pursuit of its mission in South Lebanon will remain open to the public until the end of the week. Graziano said the exhibition would be touring other Southern towns.

“What you see here today are productions of UNIFIL’s photography and video units,” he added.

Graziano explained that pictures displayed were part of an exhibition, which was held in the UN headquarters in New York recently.

“It was highly appreciated by everyone who saw the exhibition and I shared their enthusiasm so I thought it would be a good idea to present this to the people of Lebanon,” he said.

Graziano said that in the three decades of its existence, “UNIFIL has become synonymous with South Lebanon.”

Graziano told Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 ORE on Saturday that the withdrawal UNIFIL from the South “would bring Lebanon’s downfall.

UNIFIL first deployed in South Lebanon in 1978, but it was expanded last year in accordance with UN Resolution 1701, which put an end to the 34-day summer 2006 war.

An estimated 14,000 peacekeepers and support staff currently operate south of the Litani River. UNIFIL troops have been targeted in attacks since the end of the war, and the security situation in the country has deteriorated as pro-government and opposition camps have failed in months of talks to agree on a consensus candidate for the soon-vacant presidency.

Graziano said political bickering in Lebanon “is one of the challenges we face.”

But Graziano added that “despite the crisis all Lebanese groups have repeatedly expressed their support for our mission.” He said international support for UNIFIL’s mission has also contributed in “facilitating our mission.”

While Graziano acknowledged the existence of arms in South Lebanon, he stressed that it was not UNIFIL’s mission to disarm Hizbullah.

“Yet,” he added “our mission is not to disarm Hizbullah. Our searches and raids are restricted to situations where our own security is endangered.”

In other developments, the Spanish contingent serving as part of UNIFIL will witness a transfer of authority Tuesday, with General Jose Maria Prieto ceding his powers as commander of UNIFIL Sector East to General Casimiro Sanjuan. The handover ceremony will be co-presided by Graziano and General Jose Manuel Molla Ayuso, chief of Spanish Armored Forces.

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