U.N. chief says Syria promised to enforce arms embargo on Hezbollah

Friday, September 1st 2006, 10:16 am
By: News On 6

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday that Syria has pledged to step up border patrols and work with the Lebanese army to stop the flow of weapons to Hezbollah.

Annan also said that he had asked Syrian President Bashar Assad to use his nation's influence to help win the release of three Israeli soldiers held by Lebanese and Palestinian militants allied with Damascus.

According to Annan, Assad said at a meeting in Damascus that Syria will boost the number of its guards along the Lebanon-Syria border and establish joint patrols with the Lebanese army ``where possible.''

Israel has insisted that the international force be stationed along the Syrian frontier, although Assad has warned that such a presence would be considered ``hostile.''

Annan said Assad restated ``Syria's objection to the presence of foreign forces along the Lebanese-Syrian borders.''

The U.N. chief spoke with reporters at the Damascus airport before departing for Qatar. Assad made no public comments after the meeting.

The Aug. 11 resolution that halted fighting between Israel and Hezbollah calls on countries to prevent the sale or supply of weapons to entities in Lebanon without the consent of the Lebanese government or U.N. peacekeepers. It also calls for Lebanon to ``secure its borders and other entry points.''

Syria promised to ``undertake as soon as possible'' measures to increase its number of border guards and give them additional training and equipment, Annan said. Syria will also establish liaisons with the Lebanese armed forces, border police and international personnel ``in order to set up an effective interdiction regime,'' the secretary-general added.

Asked whether such measures would succeed in blocking arms shipments to Hezbollah, Annan replied: ``I think it can happen. It may not be 100 percent, but it will make quite a lot of difference if the government puts in place the measures the government has discussed with me. I have no reason to believe it will not be done.''

On the issue of disarming Hezbollah, Annan said Assad ``accepts and supports the decisions of Lebanese national dialogue on disarmament of militias.''

Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, questioned whether Syria could provide a reliable force, saying the country helped finance and arm Hezbollah during the recent conflict.

``Syria continues to be a safe haven for terrorism as we see with Hamas headquarters and with numerous rockets and missiles made by Syria and supplied by Syria that were fired against Israel in the months of July and August this year.''

Before the 34-day war, Lebanese politicians failed to reach consensus on Hezbollah's arsenal. Since then Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has defended his group's need for weapons, but said he was open to dialogue on the matter.

Annan has said the expanded U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, would not disarm Hezbollah _ calling the issue a matter for the Lebanese to decide.

The only Syrian comment after the Assad-Annan meeting came from Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who would not comment on details but said: ``Now there is a window that can be benefited from if the international community is truthful in its efforts toward a just and comprehensive peace. Otherwise, the other bad choice (war) is possible.''

Annan said he and Assad agreed that the cessation of hostilities in Lebanon provided an opportunity to move toward greater Mideast peace.

Assad is prepared to establish diplomatic ties with Lebanon and delineate the border between the two countries, Annan said. He added that he encouraged the Syrian leader to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who is backed by an anti-Syrian majority. Assad told him he was ready to meet Saniora any time.

As for the Israeli soldiers, Assad said he supported their release, but raised the question of the release of 16 Syrians detained on the Golan Heights for opposing the Israeli occupation of that Syrian territory.