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Australia Would Send Peacekeepers to Lebanon Under Right Conditions

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says his country could send troops to join a peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon if international forces have the power to disarm Hezbollah militants.

Mr. Howard, speaking in Canberra, says a "serious" peacekeeping mission in Lebanon should consist of tens of thousands of troops, with the strength and authority to act as an effective buffer between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

An international conference on the Middle East crisis on Wednesday agreed in principle that an international peacekeeping force should be formed by the United Nations. However, the diplomats who met in Rome did not specify the composition, size, mandate, deployment or exit strategy of such a force.

In Kuala Lumpur, where Asian foreign ministers are meeting Thursday, Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said sending peacekeeping troops into southern Lebanon now, without a cease-fire in place, would be "a suicide mission."

Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, returning to Ankara Thursday from the talks in Rome, said his country would only decide whether to join a U.N. peace force after an enduring cease-fire is in place in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, officials in Canberra say they are withdrawing 12 Australian personnel from southern Lebanon because of the chaotic situation there. The 12 logistics specialists, who have no weapons, have been helping Australian citizens organize evacuations from Lebanon. They are relocating to Beirut.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and AP.