Annan urges Israel to lift Lebanon blockade, handover of soldiers

BEIRUT (AFP) — UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged Israel Monday to lift its blockade of Lebanon, and pressed Hizbollah to free Israeli soldiers whose capture sparked a devastating 34-day onslaught on the Jewish state’s northern neighbour.

At the start of a regional tour to underpin a fragile truce between Israel and Hizbollah, Annan told reporters the United Nations was also ready to assist in an exchange of prisoners.

“We are working for the lifting of the siege, I am discussing it with the Israeli authorities tomorrow, I hope there will be some movements on this in the not-too-distant future,” he said.

He said the blockade would be one of the first items on his agenda when he visits Israel on Tuesday, calling on Hizbollah to release two Israeli soldiers to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or Lebanese authorities.

Annan also met Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri — a close ally of Shiite group Hizbollah — and other politicians.

“We are entering the stage of recovery and reconstruction, we have a chance to have a long-term ceasefire,” Annan said after meeting Berri.

Berri said their talks focused on the crippling Israeli air and naval blockade on Lebanon which he claimed had violated the UN-brokered truce, while insisting that Lebanon had fully respected the ceasefire terms.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 framed a ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah on August 14 after more than a month of bitter fighting.

Annan called for the full implementation of the terms of the resolution, chiefly an Israeli pullout from southern Lebanon and a deployment of the Lebanese army and reinforced UN peacekeepers in the area.

Meanwhile, Italy became the latest European country to give a green light for its contribution to the expanded UN force, a senior official said in Rome, with a total of 2,500 troops expected.

In New York, countries committed to the beefed-up peacekeeping force were to meet at the UN Monday after Turkey also said it was ready to send troops.

“We will have about 30 countries taking part, including the European countries which signalled their intention to participate in the force Friday,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

At his news conference, Annan stressed the need for the “disarmament and disbanding of all militias” in Lebanon, in an implicit reference to Hizbollah.

“In Lebanon, there should be one law, one authority, one gun,” he said.

Annan also said it was not the duty of UN forces to disarm Hizbollah but to monitor the ceasefire.

“They are not going to go house-to-house searching for weapons, this is not their responsibility,” he said.

UN peacekeepers would only open fire if attacked, but Annan warned: “The soldiers will use forcible means to defend themselves regardless of who attacks them.” On the eve of Annan’s visit, Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah had said his fighters would not oppose the expanded UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), but warned that the peacekeepers should not seek to disarm them.

Much of southern Lebanon lies in ruins after Israel’s assault on Hizbollah that left at least 1,287 people dead in Lebanon, nearly all of them civilians, as well as 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Nasrallah said he would not have ordered the soldiers’ capture had he foreseen the severity of Israel’s response.

Mohammed Chatah, Siniora’s top adviser, told AFP that Siniora would raise the question of the Shebaa Farms area in his talks with Annan.

The disputed territory, at the junction of Lebanon, Syria and Israel, was captured by the Jewish state as part of the Syrian Golan Heights during the 1967 war.

It is now claimed by Lebanon with the approval of Syria in an arrangement that is not recognised by the UN.

Nasrallah said Sunday that contacts had begun through  Berri for an exchange of the two captive soldiers for Arab prisoners held by Israel.

US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson was also working for a broad exchange of prisoners through talks with Hizbollah, the Palestinian group Hamas and leaders in Israel and Syria, he told AFP in Beirut.

“They all have the same things in common, they want the release of their prisoners. We are seeking a plan to set them free,” he said.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered a government inquiry into the conduct of Lebanon war, for the first time admitting failures during the 34-day offensive.

But the embattled premier refused to back calls for the most sweeping type of public inquiry — a state commission — which he said would paralyse the leadership at a time when Israel needed to  prepare for a threat from Iran.

Annan later toured devastated southern Beirut and laid a wreath at the tomb of slain ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri whose death in February 2005 sparked protests that led to the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

During Annan’s tour he is also to visit Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Syria. He is expected in Iran on Saturday for talks on Tehran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear programme.

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