India says it may withdraw its peacekeeping troops from southern Lebanon. The announcement comes as the United Nations tries to assemble a bigger international force to enforce the fledgling Middle East truce.
Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee says India is considering withdrawing the nearly 700 soldiers deployed along the Israeli-Lebanon border by the end of the month, when their current term expires. He gave no reason for the possible pullout.
Officials say the troops will remain in place until the positions they occupy are taken over by a new United Nations force.
The possible withdrawal of the Indian contingent comes as the U.N. scrambles to put together a force of about 15,000 peacekeepers in Lebanon. They would oversee the ceasefire between Israel and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah that ended more than a month of fighting.
The U.N. currently has 2,000 troops in the area. It has urged the international community to commit more troops.
But some countries are concerned that the mandate of the new peacekeeping contingent is unclear.
Uday Bhaskar is a senior official at New Delhi's government-funded Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis. He says India, like other countries, wants the U.N. to clarify the mandate of the expanded force.
"There are different interpretations between peace keeping and peace enforcement, that is something that needs to be resolved and many countries are waiting for this consensus to emerge…All countries would have to really review how they would contribute because… there would be a certain element then of operational tasking, and issues like rules of engagement would have to be spelt with some clarity and most democracies would like this to be debated in their own parliaments," Bhaskar said.
Defense analysts in India say several countries are worried that the peacekeepers may be allowed greater use of force if the focus in Lebanon moves from peacekeeping to peace enforcement - and do not want to be sucked into any fighting.
Officials in Bangladesh and Pakistan have also said they would be wary of any deployment to Lebanon that would involve the use of force. Both these Muslim countries are traditionally generous contributors to U.N. peacekeeping efforts.
India's peacekeeping contingent first went to Lebanon in 1998 to join the two-decade-old U.N. interim force in that country. India has another contingent of more than 100 with the U.N. on the Golan Heights.