Mideast truce 'very fragile', Merkel warns

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the situation in Lebanon as “very fragile” on Monday as a truce between Israel and Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas entered its second week.

Speaking in Berlin, Merkel said it was vital to get United Nations peacekeeping troops to the area quickly to prevent a rekindling of the conflict, in which nearly 1 200 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis died.

Italy emerged as the potential leader of such troops following telephone talks between Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and his opposite numbers in Beirut and Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, due to host senior UN envoys in Jerusalem, spoke to Prodi late on Sunday and said he would be happy to see the Italians in charge.

“Italy should lead the international force and send troops to also oversee the Lebanon-Syria border crossings,” a statement from Olmert’s office said.

The Lebanese Cabinet was expected to welcome the Italian initiative at a Cabinet meeting later on Monday. A senior Lebanese political source said 2 500 Italian soldiers would take part in the UN contingent.

Earlier this month, France offered to lead the force but then dismayed the United Nations by offering only 200 extra troops to those it already has in the existing UN force in Lebanon, known as Unifil.

Since then, the impetus appears to have swung towards Rome, although the Lebanese source said details still had to be worked out with both France and Italy.

The UN force will work alongside a similar-sized Lebanese army contingent gradually deploying to the towns and villages of southern Lebanon.

Around 15 Lebanese tanks rolled into the southern port of Tyre, witnesses said on Monday—the first deployment of tanks since the truce took hold.

FEW SIGNIFICANT OFFERS

The UN already has 2 000 soldiers in the area with Unifil. Under the terms of Security Council resolution 1701 which ended the war, it has vowed to move another 3 500 there by September 2.

So far, few countries have made significant offers of help.
Despite Merkel’s insistence that soldiers should be deployed quickly, Germany is one of several countries to have ruled out sending combat troops.

Some nations have complained that the rules of engagement under which their soldiers would operate are ill-defined.

Vijay Nambiar, one of two UN envoys touring the region, said he hoped those rules would be set “in the next few days”.

Nambiar’s fellow envoy Terje Roed-Larsen warned the uneasy ceasefire might still unravel if there were violations of resolution 1701.

The Israeli government has come under fire at home for its handling of the war, which failed to kill off Hezbollah.

On Monday, Israeli reservists published a scathing open letter in which they accused government leaders and top army officers of inept handling of the war.

In addition, Israeli Brigadier-General Yossi Heiman said the military had been “guilty of the sin of arrogance” in its approach to the battle.

Monday’s talks between Israeli officials and the two UN envoys are likely to focus on Israel’s continued air and sea embargo of Lebanon and the vexed issue of prisoner exchange.

Israel and the UN are demanding the unconditional release of two Israeli soldiers, whose seizure by Hezbollah guerrillas on July 12 sparked the war.

Hezbollah says Israel will have to negotiate their release in exchange for Lebanese and Arab prisoners in Israeli jails.

DAWN RAID TO BE DISCUSSED

The UN envoys said they would also discuss Saturday’s dawn raid by Israeli commandos on a Hezbollah stronghold in the eastern Lebanese Bekaa Valley.

The UN said the operation was a violation of resolution 1701 while Israel said it was defensive and designed to disrupt weapons supplies to Hezbollah. The Jewish state accuses Iran and Syria or arming the Shi’ite group, a charge both countries deny.

In a sign that life is gradually returning to normal in Beirut, the Lebanese stock exchange lifted restrictions brought in during the war to limit price volatility. Trade was brisk and the benchmark Blom Stock Index rose 5,8%.

The governor of Lebanon’s central bank build the southern city of Bint Jbeil, hit hard by Israeli air strikes.

Emir of Qatar Shiekh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was due in Beirut later to discuss potential aid. He will be the first head of state to visit Lebanon since the start of war. - Reuters

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