Lebanese officials dismiss Israeli calls for peace talks

BEIRUT (AP) — Italian soldiers moved into southern Lebanon with trucks and armoured vehicles Sunday in the first big wave of a UN troops to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah fighters. Lebanese officials scoffed at an Israeli call for peace talks.

Israeli security officials said they expect the army to be out of Lebanese territory within the next two weeks, when they decide sufficient UN forces have arrived in south Lebanon to enforce the truce.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media, did not specify when Israel would plan to lift its air and sea blockade. Israel says it has to maintain the blockade to prevent Iran and Syria from providing more weapons and rockets to Hizbollah fighters.

The timetable for a pullout coincided with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s call for peace talks.

“How natural, how understandable it would be for the prime minister of Lebanon to respond to the many calls I have made toward him and say, ‘Come on, let’s sit, shake hands, make peace and end once and for all the hostility, the jealousy, the hatred that some of my people have toward you,”’ Olmert said while touring a school in northern Israel.

“I hope this day comes soon. I yearn for it,” said Olmert.

Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi responded angrily and quickly.

“Let him dream on. He will never see the day,” Aridi said. “Before he talks about peace, he is required to withdraw his troops from Lebanon and lift the blockade.” “Olmert must know that Lebanon will never negotiate with Israel or with him,” he told the Associated Press. There is “absolutely no trust between Lebanon and Israel”.  “Why should we negotiate with them?” said the information minister. “Israel will not get through peace what it failed to get in war.”

His words echoed a widespread Lebanese sentiment that Hizbollah’s fierce resistance during the 34-day war was a victory for the group.

Last week, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora also rejected the idea of talks with the Jewish state, saying that Lebanon would “be the last Arab country that could sign a peace agreement with Israel”. His office issued a statement Sunday, restating that position.

The government “is not prepared to listen to such things. Such invitations are rejected before they even happen”, Siniora’s office said.

After weeks of delays since the August 14 truce between Israel and Hizbollah took effect, the strengthened UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, has finally begun to take shape, though it could take months for it to reach its full strength of 15,000.

Under the ceasefire plan, 15,000 Lebanese soldiers were also to be deployed to assert control over the Hizbollah stronghold south of the Litani River and to prevent arms from reaching the fighters.

The first large batch of peacekeepers arrived in Lebanon on Sunday, with soldiers and marines from two Italian regiments reaching their bases in the south of the country.

An AP photographer saw a few children cheering or waving Italian flags as the long convoy of soldiers made its way to a base in Kalaway, near the southern port city of Tyre.

About 860 troops have arrived, the Italian Defence ministry said in a statement. The ministry said the troops would not be further deployed until later this week.

The French army said that about 200 troops and 100 vehicles loading onto ships along France’s Mediterranean coast and would reach Lebanon by the end of the week.

France’s first shipment of heavy armour, including powerful Leclerc tanks, wasn’t expected to leave until Thursday, the French army said.

The Italians will bring the total number of UN peacekeepers in Lebanon to 3,250 — including the 2,000 UNIFIL troops who were already in place and 250 French soldiers who arrived last week.

Ahead of the peacekeepers’ deployment, Israel raced to destroy Hizbollah arms caches ahead of its impending withdrawal.

French Gen. Alain Pellegrini, who commands UNIFIL, confirmed Israel has been destroying Hizbollah arms caches in territories it still occupies in the south, and the Israeli military said its forces had demolished an unspecified number of Hizbollah bunkers.

Pellegrini said such actions violated the truce, as do reconnaissance missions by Israeli jets and drones over Lebanese airspace.

“The ceasefire is holding for the moment … but it’s fragile,” Pellegrini said.

The UN ceasefire resolution calls for Hizbollah to eventually be disarmed, but does not direct peacekeepers to take on that task.

Instead, the force will ensure a buffer zone along the Israeli-Lebanese border is free of Hizbollah fighters and arms north to the Litani River, 30 kilometres to the north.

At the same time, Lebanese troops are supposed to prevent new weapons shipments to Hizbollah from Syria, a Hizbollah ally.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is touring the Middle East to boost peace efforts, has said that Syria promised to patrol its side of the frontier to prevent arms deliveries, though Israel voiced scepticism it would really do so.

Syrian President Bashar Assad pledged Sunday to rebuild three southern Lebanese villages destroyed by Israeli bombardment, Syria’s official news agency also reported.

There was no immediate comment from the government in Lebanon, which is dominated by anti-Syrian politicians.

In Tehran on Sunday, Annan said that Iran — which helped create Hizbollah and is believed to be its main supplier of arms and money — was supportive of the UN ceasefire resolution for Lebanon.

Annan, who met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday, said the Iranian leader had “reaffirmed his country’s support for the implementation of Resolution 1701,” installing the Lebanese ceasefire.

Israel’s devastating offensive on Lebanon was triggered when Hizbollah fighters seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12.

Hizbollah has vowed not to lay down its weapons, and its fighters have melted away into the civilian population. The Lebanese army has made no moves to disarm them.

More than 850 Lebanese and 150 Israelis died in the conflict.

A 55-year-old Lebanese man was killed Sunday when a cluster bomb left from an Israeli air strike in the village of Kfar Sir near the Litani River. His death raised to at least 14 the number of people killed by unexploded ordnance in Lebanon since the ceasefire.

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