U.N. chief calls on Israel to end blockade of Lebanon during Mideast tour

Tuesday, August 29th 2006, 8:53 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday called Israel's air and sea blockade of Lebanon a ``humiliation,'' while Israel said it won't end the embargo until peacekeeping forces on the border can prevent Hezbollah guerrillas from importing new weapons.

Annan said the United Nations hoped to double its 2,500-member force in southern Lebanon by Friday, but that number was still far short of the 15,000 international troops authorized under a Security Council cease-fire resolution approved Aug. 11.

The U.N. chief arrived in Israel after visiting U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon who will play a key role in maintaining the fragile truce that ended 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

His visits to Lebanon and Israel came a day after Italy and Turkey moved to join the international force in southern Lebanon.

Annan said he told Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz about lifting the blockade on Lebanon ``as soon as possible in order to allow Lebanon to go on with normal commercial activities and also rebuild its economy.''

During an earlier visit to Naqoura in south Lebanon, Annan said ``we need to deal with the lifting of the embargo _ sea, land and air _ which for the Lebanese is a humiliation and an infringement on their sovereignty.''

Israel wants international forces to help patrol the Lebanon-Syria border to stop the arms flow. Lebanon has said its troops would be able to secure the border on their own.

Peretz said Israel hoped to end the blockade soon, though he did not clarify when that would happen. Israel has demanded that Lebanese and international forces take control of the Lebanon-Syrian border to prevent Hezbollah guerrillas from smuggling in arms.

``Member states should not ship arms to Lebanon, other than to the government, and if they do they are breaking the (case-fire) resolution,'' Annan said.

Annan also met Tuesday night with the relatives of the two Israeli soldiers who capture by Hezbollah guerrillas sparked the fighting and another Israel soldier previously captured by Hamas-allied militants.

Karnit Goldwasser, whose husband, Ehud, was captured by Hezbollah guerrillas, told Israel TV after the meeting with Annan that he gave them no new information about the fate of their loved ones.

``But the good news was that we got a personal pledge from the secretary general of the U.N. that he accepts the mission to get the three kidnapped soldiers home and that's a really big thing,'' she said.

Annan earlier visited U.N. peacekeepers in Naqoura, about 2 1/2 miles north of the Israeli border, and the base for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL.

He laid a wreath at a monument for peacekeepers killed in Lebanon since UNIFIL deployed here in 1978. Muslim and Christian clergymen said prayers, and the U.N. chief stood in silence in front of a display of portraits of those killed, including four UNIFIL members killed in an Israeli airstrike on their base in Khiam on July 25.

The U.N. chief shook hands with members of the 2,000-member force. Flags of countries contributing troops to UNIFIL, including Annan's native Ghana, fluttered in the breeze as the band played their national anthems.

Annan told the troops ``we are trying to get in the additional reinforcements as quickly as we can.''

In Copenhagen, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said ``time will tell who is the winner'' of the 34-day conflict, and she said Hezbollah had been weakened by the fighting.

``Hezbollah has to give some explanation to the Lebanese people,'' she said. ``They suffered for nothing.''

After talks with Lebanese leaders in Beirut, Annan faulted both Israel and Hezbollah for not living up to key sections of the cease-fire resolution, and warned that fighting could resume if the parties did not abide by the full resolution.

``Without the full implementation of resolution 1701, I fear the risk is great for renewal of hostilities,'' he said.

He also toured a bombed-out neighborhood in the Hezbollah stronghold of south Beirut, where hundreds of residents booed him as he toured the ruins Monday.

Annan said he found the destruction in south Lebanon ``quite shocking,'' and said he could ``understand the anger and frustration of some of those who had lived there.''

``But what happened yesterday was really a little sideshow put on to impress me, and I think some of the young ones got a bit overzealous,'' he said in reference to the booing.

The U.N. refugee agency said thousands of Lebanese have been unable to return to their homes two weeks after the cease-fire took hold because they feel too insecure or their residences were destroyed.

``I think until the cease-fire is completely stable and the forces are in place there, many of those people would be reluctant to go back,'' said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Jack Redden.

Meanwhile, an Italian task force, led by the country's only aircraft carrier, the Giuseppe Garibaldi, sailed from southern Italy for Lebanon. Three landing platform dock ships also left the port of Brindisi, and a small frigate already in Cyprus was scheduled to join the Italian mission, the Defense Ministry said.

Italy on Monday approved sending 2,500 troops, the largest national contingent so far. The plan now goes to Parliament for approval, but the ships were to set sail ahead of the vote and reach Lebanon on Friday.

``We will follow you with trepidation because it is a delicate mission of huge historic significance,'' Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi told about 1,000 soldiers bound for U.N. peacekeeping duties. ``But we will also follow you with pride and trust, knowing that although you carry arms, you're going to Lebanon exclusively to bring peace.''

Some of the crew shared the mixed feelings.

``This mission came all of a sudden,'' said Sgt. Gaspare Scavone, 33, on his first mission abroad. ``We're still in the dark as to what we will have to do once we're in the area.''

Spain's Defense Ministry said a marine unit was ordered to prepare for deployment to Lebanon to join the U.N. peacekeeping force. The ministry would not disclose the number of troops but Spain's Socialist government reportedly is considering sending between 700 and 1,000. The government is expected to approve the deployment at a Cabinet meeting Friday and then must seek Parliament's approval.

A battalion of 900 French soldiers will arrive in Lebanon in mid-September to help boost the peacekeeping force, the Defense Ministry said. France now has about 400 soldiers in the force and plans to expand that number to 2,000.

On Monday, Turkey's Cabinet decided in favor of sending peacekeepers and its parliament was to debate the deployment later this week or early next week, said Turkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek.

Turkey ruled Lebanon for some 400 years during the Ottoman Empire and many Turkish officials want their country to have a say in an area that they regard as their country's backyard.

The United States, the European Union and Israel were pressing Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO and a country with close ties to Israel and Arab countries, to send peacekeepers.