Syria, Israel in showdown over UN force mandate

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria hotly opposed deployment of an international force along its border to prevent arms shipments to Hizbollah, and Israel on Wednesday called the situation in Lebanon “explosive”, as the ceasefire was shaken by artillery shells and explosions that killed three Lebanese soldiers and an Israeli.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora asked the US to help lift an Israeli blockade on his country’s coast and airport — something Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said would not happen until UN troops deployed along the Lebanon-Syria border to block the flow of weapons.

Hizbollah’s vast arsenal of rockets and other weapons, much of which is believed to originate in Iran, reaches the fighters across the Syrian border.

European Union ambassadors and deputies met in Brussels to drum up volunteers for the force, but tentative pledges reached just 4,200 troops by Wednesday — far short of the 15,000 called for by the UN ceasefire resolution.

Deployment was likely to take weeks or months.

Meanwhile, there was word Syria might impose a blockade of its own.

“They will close their borders for all traffic in case UN troops will be deployed along the Lebanon-Syria border,” Finland’s Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said after meeting his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, in Helsinki. Finland holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Lebanon has land borders only with Syria and Israel.

Syria’s threat to close its border and Israel’s resolve to continue the blockade were among the burgeoning hurdles facing Lebanon as it struggled to meet key requirements of the UN resolution: Deployment of 15,000 army soldiers south for the first time in four decades, and stiffening control on all borders.

Siniora said Wednesday his government was making “every effort” to secure the borders, but Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni questioned the pace.

“Time is working against those who would like to see this resolution applied,” Livni told reporters after talks in Paris with her French counterpart, Philippe Douste-Blazy.

“We are now in the most sensitive and explosive position,” she said.

Several incidents erupted along the Israel-Lebanon border Wednesday, with three Lebanese and one Israeli soldier killed by exploding ordnance, two Lebanese men captured in an army raid, and Israeli forces resuming sporadic shelling in the disputed Sheeba Farms.

Olmert told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by phone that the international force must arrive as soon as possible, so the sea and air blockade could be called off, his office said.

Syria appeared to insert itself Wednesday, with Syrian President Bashar Assad calling any deployment of multinational troops along his border a “hostile” affront to Syria.

“First, this means creating hostile conditions between Syria and Lebanon,” Assad told Dubai Television in an interview aired Wednesday. “Second, it is a hostile move towards Syria and naturally it will create problems.”

The August 11 UN resolution that halted fighting three days later called for 15,000 international troops to arrive in Lebanon, but their mandate was fuzzy.

The additional peacekeepers were to join the 2,000-strong UN Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, deployed south of the Litani River, some 30 kilometres from Israel, and open fire only in defence of themselves and civilians.

“The Israelis cannot ask UNIFIL to disarm Hizbollah. This is not written in our mandate,” French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, the UNIFIL commander, told reporters at force headquarters in Naqoura, Lebanon..

Of the ceasefire, Pellegrini said: “It is tense, very fragile, very volatile… Any provocation or misunderstanding could escalate very, very rapidly.” Many countries appeared wary of joining without safeguards to ensure they don’t get sucked into a new Mideast conflict.

France currently leads UNIFIL but disappointed the UN by pledging only to double its 200-strong contingent. But French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Wednesday his country wanted “to go further once the conditions are right.” Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis visited Beirut on Wednesday and pledged two teams of troops but did not mention numbers.

Siniora on Wednesday accepted a $230 million aid package from the United States and asked Washington to use its influence with Israel.

“The United States can support us in putting real pressure on Israel to lift the siege,” Siniora said.

Israel imposed a sea, land and air blockade on Lebanon early in the war. Siniora has called it’s continuation a violation of the ceasefire and reportedly phoned Rice and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to intervene.

Artillery soared Wednesday in the disputed Shibaa Farms area — where Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet. Israel said it fired only into its own territory as deterrence. But Lebanese security officials said Israeli troops stationed in the area fired across the border into Lebanon, hitting near Lebanese army positions. Lebanese and Israeli officials agreed no artillery from Lebanon hit Israel.

The Israeli army seized two Lebanese men in a village farther along the border, Lebanese officials said, but Israel did not comment.

Three Lebanese soldiers were killed as they dismantled an unexploded missile near the southern village of Tibnine, and an Israeli soldier died near Blida when his tank hit a landmine.

Another Israeli soldier was shot in the head in the border village of Taibeh, Arab media said, but Israel denied such an incident.

A Lebanese army communique said four Israeli jets flew over huge swaths of Lebanon, including the capital. Such flyovers have been frequent since the ceasefire.

Witnesses in south Lebanon said an Israeli bulldozer and two tanks set up a roadblock and cut off traffic between two Lebanese villages, isolating the town of Bint Jbeil.

Hundreds of Israeli troops have remained in the positions they occupied during the fighting, waiting for the UN peacekeepers to establish a buffer zone between Israel and Hizbollah fighters

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