U.N. chief calls on Israel to end blockade of Lebanon
JERUSALEM -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Israel's air and sea blockade of Lebanon a "humiliation" Tuesday and demanded it be lifted. But Israel said it first needed assurances that forces deployed on the border can stop weapons shipments to Hezbollah.
The dispute was the latest threat to the fragile cease-fire that ended 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
Annan arrived in Israel as part of an 11-day Mideast tour intended to shore up the truce, help Lebanon recover and secure the release of two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah on July 12 sparked the fighting.
"We need to resolve the issue of the abducted soldiers very quickly," Annan said during a visit earlier Tuesday to a U.N. base in south Lebanon. "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."
In Israel, Annan met with Defense Minister Amir Peretz and urged the blockade be lifted "as soon as possible in order to allow Lebanon to go on with normal commercial activities and also rebuild its economy."
Israel has said it will allow free movement once it is assured the forces deployed on Lebanon's borders can prevent Hezbollah from rearming itself. Israel wants international forces to help patrol the Lebanon-Syria border to enforce an arms embargo on Hezbollah. Lebanon says its troops can secure the border on their own.
Peretz said he told Annan about the importance of controlling the border "and the implementation of the embargo against the transfer of arms and ammunition between Syria and Lebanon."
Annan said Israel was responsible for most of the violations of the cease-fire and appealed for everyone to work together to ensure peace holds and "not risk another explosion in six years or 20 years."
Israeli troops are still occupying a security zone in southern Lebanon and have sporadically fought with Hezbollah guerrillas since the truce took effect Aug. 14. Israel says it won't leave until a sufficiently strong contingent of Lebanese and international troops arrives.
Annan said the U.N. hoped to have 5,000 soldiers in the region by Friday. That is double its prewar number, but still far short of the 15,000 international troops eventually supposed to patrol the border along with 15,000 Lebanese soldiers.
"Israel will pull out once there is a reasonable level of forces there," Peretz said without saying how many that would be.
As part of the effort to get international troops on the ground quickly, a five-ship Italian fleet departed for Lebanon on Tuesday carrying 800 soldiers.
Annan was to meet Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who plans to call for "the unconditional return of our captives in Lebanon," said his spokeswoman Miri Eisin, referring to reserve soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. A third soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, was captured by Hamas-linked militants from an army post near the Gaza Strip on June 25.
The soldiers' families met with Annan and said he told them he had no new information about the captives, and there were no negotiations -- not even secret ones -- taking place.
"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," Goldwasser's wife, Karnit, told Israel TV.
"(Hezbollah) must first of all give us a sign of life. (Annan) must act toward that. It's a moral demand that's basic in any negotiations," said Regev's brother, Benny.
Shalit's father, Noam, said he asked Annan to raise his son's issue when he goes to Damascus, where Hamas' leadership is based. Annan also was to travel to Iran; Iran and Syria are the main patrons of Hezbollah.
In Beirut, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, on a mission to secure the soldiers' release, said he was told they were alive during meetings in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Khaled Mashaal, Hamas' political leader.
"The Hamas leadership says that the soldier they are holding is alive and well," Jackson said.
"The president (Assad) believes that the two held somewhere by Hezbollah are alive," he added.
Annan visited U.N. peacekeepers in Naqoura, about 2 1/2 miles north of the Israeli border, where the base for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon is located.
He was briefed by French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, the UNIFIL commander, and other top officials, then reviewed an honor guard of U.N. troops in blue berets inside the U.N.'s white-walled compound.
He laid a wreath at a monument for nearly 300 peacekeepers killed in Lebanon since UNIFIL deployed there in 1978. Muslim and Christian clergymen said prayers and the U.N. chief stood in silence in front of portraits of those killed, including four UNIFIL members who died in a July 25 Israeli airstrike on their base in Khiam.
Annan told the troops their role was "misunderstood and criticized" and they were "never given credit for the wonderful things they have done and the sacrifices they have made."