French defence minister fears 'untenable situation' for UN peacekeepers in Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: Members of the United Nations peacekeepers (UNIFIL) stand in Khiam, near Lebanon's border with Israel

PARIS (Reuters) - France has passed messages to Hezbollah and Israel to not destabilise the United Nations' Lebanon peacekeeping force UNIFIL and said that any broadening of the Hamas-Israel war to Lebanon would plunge the country "into an abyss".

France has sought to use its historical relationship with Lebanon to try to defuse tensions between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah, but violence has spiked. Some 700 French soldiers are part of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) established in 1978 following violence on the Israel-Lebanon border.

"It is clear that we must not put UNIFIL in an untenable situation in which it will not be able to carry out the mission that the United Nations has given it," Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu told France Info radio.

"This is the message we are sending to the various actors, on the Lebanese side as well as on the Israeli side."

Speaking after meeting the French contingent in Lebanon and ahead of a much-anticipated speech by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday, Lecornu said all of Lebanon's leaders needed to understand the risk of going to war.

"The war here in Lebanon would plunge part of the Middle East into an abyss, into an abyss which we would have difficulty collectively to get back up from," Lecornu said.

President Emmanuel Macron appointed a former foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in June to try to come up with a method to convince Lebanon's political elite to put rivalries aside and appoint a new head of state after more than a year of blockage to carry out economic reforms and unlock vital foreign aid.

However, that has led to nowhere.

"It's clear that in the difficulties we are experiencing, not having a contact person for over a year now makes no sense. This weakens Lebanon even more," Lecornu said.

Hezbollah has been exchanging fire with Israeli forces across the Israeli-Lebanese border since the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel went to war on Oct. 7, in the deadliest violence at the frontier since a 2006 war.

(Reporting by John Irish; editing by Grant McCool)