General Alain Pellegrini, the French commander of the Unifil force in Lebanon, said on Thursday that the UN was relying on diplomacy to try to end the violations.

"If the diplomatic means should not be enough, maybe it could be considered other ways," he added, referring to the possible use of anti-aircraft missiles equipping French forces in Lebanon.

But Pellegrini made it clear that such a move would require "new rules of engagement drafted and decided here [at UN headquarters]".

"Air violations is our major concern. They are not to be accepted. Every time these occur, we report them first to the secretary general immediately and we protest to the Israelis."

'Clear violation'

Pellegrini said that, at the moment, Unifil had "no other means to prevent these kinds of violations" than diplomacy.

He pointedly noted that the French contingent of Unifil was currently equipped with "anti-aircraft missiles but only for its self-defence.

"At the moment even if these violations are going on, there are less numerous than before."

He insisted, however, that this was no reason to accept them as they were a "clear violation" of Security Council resolution 1701 which ended the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in August.

French assistance

Saad Hariri, of Lebanon's Future Movement, part of the majority March 14 coalition bloc, urged Jacques Chirac, the French president, to help stop the overflights.

Hariri, the son of slain former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, said he asked the French leader to "intervene with the Israelis" to end the "violations of Lebanese airspace".

 

Hariri said UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which included the ceasefire that brought an end to 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, "is very clear" on the matter of the overflights.

Negotiations

Meanwhile, a senior Lebanese politician has called for Arabs to revive an initiative that calls for peace with Israel.

 

Nabih Berri, Lebanon's parliament speaker, said in a television interview that Arabs should band together behind their own four-year-old land-for-peace initiative because the time "could be very appropriate" to restart peace talks.

 

Berri heads Amal, a Shia
political group close to Hezbollah

Berri, holder of the highest Shia political post in Lebanon, was referring to the Arab peace initiative, which was agreed upon at an Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002.

 

Berri is also head of Amal, a Shia political group. He is close to Hezbollah, the Shia group which fought Israeli forces in the summer war.

 

He is also close to Syria, whose president, Bashar al-Assad, also has called for renewing peace negotiations with Israel.

 

"The Arabs have agreed to the Arab peace initiative," Berri said. But he added the Israelis "and those behind them" - an allusion to the US - have rejected that.

 

Appropriate

 

Berri said: "The time now could be very appropriate to return to the peace negotiations.

 

"But could this happen and the Arabs are torn apart this way? I believe the only compensation for this is for Arabs to band together and take advantage of this." 

 

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and his foreign minister quickly responded to Berri's comments, saying that a meeting with Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's prime minister, was not off the agenda.

 

"I would be happy to meet with Siniora or any other Lebanese government official who is authorised to talk peace with Israel," he said on Thursday during a visit to Moscow.