U.N. chief demands Hezbollah release 2 captives, lifting of Israeli blockade of Lebanon
Monday, August 28th 2006, 8:36 am
By: News On 6
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan demanded Monday that Hezbollah release two captured Israeli soldiers to the international Red Cross, and that Israel lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon.
Also Monday, Turkey's Cabinet voted to send peacekeepers to southern Lebanon, becoming the only Muslim country that has relations with Israel to propose deploying troops. Turkey's Parliament will convene later this week or early next week to debate becoming part of an expanded U.N. force.
Italy's Cabinet, meanwhile, approved sending 2,500 troops to take part in the expanded U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Visiting Beirut on the first leg of an 11-day Mideast tour, Annan said he was renewing his ``call for the abducted soldiers to be free,'' and urged Hezbollah to transfer them to the Lebanese government ``or a third party'' under the auspices of the international Red Cross.
``We, the U.N., will be prepared to play a role if we are required to do so. And I offer our services,'' he said.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora led Annan on a tour of Beirut's southern suburbs, an area ravaged by Israeli airstrikes during the 34-day war. Hundreds of Lebanese shouted pro-Hezbollah slogans and booed him as he toured the rubble-strewn streets. The crowd mobbed Annan's heavily guarded motorcade, and security agents ran along both sides of the vehicles.
Annan urged Israel Monday to lift its blockade on Lebanon. ``I'm working with them and a number of international partners to see to it that this is done,'' he said.
Israel has said a resolution of the conflict must include the release of the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah militants in a cross-border raid that triggered the conflict last month.
``So long as this issue with the two soldiers is not solved, the whole thing is of little significance,'' Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in Germany. ``Our sovereignty has been infringed and if this resolution does not make that good, then we still have this problem.''
France, saying the European Union did not do enough to end the ``devastating'' conflict, urged Israel to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon, which has kept out all but a trickle of supplies.
Annan met with Mohammed Fneish, one of two Hezbollah ministers in Saniora's Cabinet, in the first direct contact with the guerrilla group during the U.N. chief's Lebanon visit.
Annan also met separately with Saniora and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who serves as Hezbollah's de facto negotiator. The secretary-general said the Lebanese government assured him it would ``faithfully'' implement the cease-fire resolution.
``We have a chance now to have a long-term cease-fire and a long-term peace (in Lebanon), and we all need to work together and this is the purpose of my visit here,'' Annan said.
But Annan cautioned that the road ahead would be long, and pledged the international community's support.
``There is lots of work to be done. We are now entering the stage of recovery and reconstruction,'' he said. ``I assured Speaker Berri that the U.N. and international community will want to work very, very intensively with the parties to ensure that they do implement the resolution to the fullest, and that we have long-term peace in this region.''
Annan also was expected to visit Israel, and Hezbollah's main supporters, Syria and Iran, during his 11-day tour.
The resolution ended 34 days of fighting between Hezbollah and Israeli forces on Aug. 14. It calls for deployment of 15,000 peacekeepers in southern Lebanon and an equal number of Lebanese troops to patrol the border region when Israel withdraws.
The Italian government on Monday also approved a $38.4 million aid package for Lebanon, and authorized spending for the peacekeeping mission of $239.1 million until Dec. 31.
Earlier Monday, the Defense Ministry said a naval task force was already being assembled to transport to Lebanon some 1,000 troops, including marines and engineering corps specialists.
The task force, led by the Giuseppe Garibaldi aircraft carrier, is scheduled to set sail Tuesday from a southern Italian port and reach the Lebanese coast on Friday.
On Friday, the European Union pledged 6,900 troops _ the core of the proposed 15,000-member force.
The United States, the European Union and Israel also were pressing for peacekeepers from Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, and a country with close ties to Israel and Arab countries. A growing number of Turks, though, oppose sending troops who could face danger and be seen as supporting Israel against fellow Muslims.
``In principle, we've decided to join the U.N. peacekeeping mission,'' government spokesman Cemil Cicek said. ``We will call on the parliament to meet in the shortest time.''
Cicek added that it was ``out of the question for the mission to be directly responsible for disarming Hezbollah. Turkey won't be part of such an effort. We've made that clear, so there is no point of us hesitating.''
Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who holds a ceremonial post but wields considerable influence in the country, came out strongly against the deployment on Friday, saying it was not Turkey's ``responsibility to protect the interests of other countries.''
Turkey ruled Lebanon for 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 large Armenian population in Lebanon has loudly protested Turkish involvement. Armenians say up to 1.5 million Armenians died or were killed over several years during World War I as part of a genocidal campaign to force them out of eastern Turkey.
In Germany, which has mediated past prisoner exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel, German deputy foreign minister Gernot Erler told ZDF television that a meeting between Livni and German intelligence chief Ernst Uhrlau would include discussion of efforts to get the Israeli soldiers released.
``It is well known that Germany has possibilities ... to help free these captured and kidnapped Israeli soldiers,'' Erler said. ``There are also earlier cases and experiences that we can use.''
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier denied that German officials were already making contacts to free them.
``There has been no request either from the Israeli or the Lebanese side,'' he added.