Italy says wants to cut Lebanon peace mission contribution

ROME, May 28, 2011 (AFP) - Italy wants to rapidly reduce the size of its contingent of peacekeepers on duty in southern Lebanon, the defence minister said Saturday after six soldiers were wounded in a roadside bomb blast.

In an interview with La Repubblica newspaper, Ignazio La Russa stressed that Italy "has no intention of abandoning Lebanon" but he said that he wanted to cut Rome's contribution to a UN force known as UNIFIL by more than a third.

"At the moment we have 1,780 soldiers, but it's too many. As we are no longer in command of the mission, then we should reduce our contribution to 1,100 as soon as possible," he told the daily.

The minister said that Italy, along with Spain, would immediately push for "other European and Latin American countries to become involved."

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was initially set up to monitor Lebanon's border with Israel but expanded after a devastating 2006 war between the Jewish state and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Italy has one of the largest contingents in the multinational force, which currently has 12,000 troops stationed in south Lebanon.

The minister was speaking after an explosion along the main highway near the town of Sidon hit a logistics convoy, wounding six Italian peacekeepers, two of them seriously, and two civilians.

The blast came only hours after UNIFIL had held a ceremony at its headquarters in the southern village of Naqura, close to the Israeli border, to honour 292 peacekeepers killed since the force was established in 1978.

The explosion on Friday, the first of its kind since 2008, drew widesprad condemnation from local and international officials.

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