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Lebanese prime minister calls on donors to help his country rebuild

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) _ Lebanon's prime minister urged world donors Thursday to help his country recover after Israeli bombing wiped out ``15 years of postwar development'' in 34 days of fighting with Hezbollah guerrillas.

About 60 governments and aid organizations were in Stockholm hoping to raise $500 million to help Lebanon rebuild roads, bridges and homes left shattered by the war.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora strongly rejected suggestions the aid money would trickle down to Hezbollah and strengthen the group's position in southern Lebanon.

``This idea, that it will be siphoned in one way or another to Hezbollah is entirely, completely, a fallacy,'' Saniora said at a news conference.

Hezbollah is already offering hundreds of millions of dollars in aid _ most of it apparently from Iran _ prompting Western fears that, unless donor countries provide significant help, support for Hezbollah, Iran and Islamic militancy will grow dramatically.

Earlier, in his opening speech, Saniora told delegates that the direct damage of the conflict was in the ``billions of dollars'' while the indirect cost including lost tourism and industry revenue would cost billions more.

``Moreover, Lebanon's well-known achievements in 15 years of postwar development have been wiped out in a matter of days by Israel's deadly military machine,'' Saniora said.

He said reconstruction efforts would be ``severely undermined'' if Israel doesn't lift its sea, air and land blockade of Lebanon.

Many delegates, with the notable exception of the United States, called for Israel to lift the blockade, which Saniora called ``inhuman.''

``Aid when there is a blockade is like putting someone on life support when there is a foot on their windpipe,'' U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said in a speech to delegates.

Israel has said it would not lift its blockade until U.N. peacekeepers take positions along the Syrian border to block arms shipments to Hezbollah from its two main supporters, Iran and Syria.

In a report to the conference, the Lebanese government projected that early recovery efforts would cost about $540 million.

The U.S. delegation at the conference reiterated President Bush's pledge last week of $230 million. However, Randall Tobias, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, indicated that aid will not be distributed through the recovery fund being set up by the Lebanese government.

``Different donors will have different needs and desires,'' Tobias said. ``Some will want to implement programs of their own choosing that are consistent with the priorities of the Lebanese government.''

Conference host Jan Eliasson, Sweden's foreign minister, said aid would strengthen the Lebanese government's control of its country.

The fighting started July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the Lebanon-Israel border at Aita al-Shaab, killed three Israeli soldiers and seized two others.

The attack provoked a fierce onslaught from Israel, which pounded Hezbollah strongholds as well as Lebanon's roads, bridges and other key infrastructure, including the international airport in Beirut. Large sections of southern Lebanon and whole neighborhoods south of Beirut were left in ruins. An estimated 1 million people fled their homes.

Saniora said a prisoner swap with Israel was being considered by his government but ``nothing has materialized.'' ``I hope the Israeli government will respond to the call of reason so that we can finish with this and everybody will return to his home,'' he said.

Both U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have demanded the soldiers' unconditional release.

The Lebanese government, along with the United Nations Development Program, said early recovery efforts would focus on finding housing for displaced families, rebuilding infrastructure, improving social services, cleaning up an oil spill of Lebanon's coast and clearing unexploded ordnance.

Some research has estimated that up to 70 percent of Israeli bombs failed to explode initially. The Lebanese report said more than 50 people have been killed by such munitions since the cease-fire took hold this month and more than 4,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance have been destroyed.

Lebanese Economy Minister Sami Haddad said the most urgent need was 10,000 prefabricated houses for families whose homes were destroyed by Israeli bombing.

Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson urged aid ministers for donations demonstrating their support to the Lebanese people.

``Our message ... should be clear and firm: You are not alone,'' he said. ``War may be the business of some, but peace will always be our common duty.''

He also said he supported Annan's call for an end to the Israeli blockade of Lebanon.

Aid money started to trickle in ahead of the conference in the Swedish capital, with the EU offering $54 million Wednesday for early reconstruction projects in Lebanon. Sweden promised $20 million on Tuesday, while the Italian government approved a $38 million aid package on Monday. Romania has pledged $640,000.

Organizers were also hoping for sizable contributions from Arab countries. Saudi Arabia plans to give $3 million through the World Food Program for food aid in addition to $2 million it has already pledged, a U.N. official said.
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