Lebanese soldiers die clearing Israeli shells

Three Lebanese soldiers were killed on Wednesday while clearing unexploded Israeli shells in southern Lebanon, underscoring the dangers of a region awaiting the deployment of thousands of United Nations peacekeepers.

The three men were the first Lebanese troops to die since the army began moving south last Thursday to bolster a UN-backed truce that halted a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

The Lebanese are due to send about 15 000 soldiers to the area to work alongside a similar number of UN troops.

About 2 000 UN soldiers already serve in Lebanon with a force called Unifil but recruiting another 13 000 has proved difficult, with few nations ready to provide big contingents.

European Union envoys were meeting in Brussels to discuss the EU contribution, which has so far centred on Italy’s promise to send 2 000 to 3 000 troops—about a third of the total envisaged European contingent.

EU help is seen as vital if the UN is to get an advance party of 3 500 troops on the ground by September 2 as planned. The bloc’s foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on Friday with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is then expected to fly on to the Middle East.

If and when the extra UN troops arrive, they will find a landscape littered with unexploded Israeli ordnance.

A UN de-mining expert told Reuters on Tuesday the Israelis had dropped cluster bombs on at least 170 sites in the south.

The bomblets that failed to explode are now a deadly trap for civilians who stayed in the area or who fled and are now returning, some to find their homes or workplaces pounded to rubble by Israeli air strikes and artillery.

An Israeli soldier was killed and three were wounded on Tuesday when they stepped on Israeli landmines in the south.

It was unclear when the mines had been planted, said the Israeli army, which for years has planted mines along the border to prevent Hezbollah militants approaching the frontier.

‘Washington can do more’

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora urged Washington to boost financial aid to Lebanon and to make Israel remove a sea and air blockade it imposed at the start of the war.

“The US can do more,” Siniora told a news conference. “The US can support us in putting real pressure on Israel to lift the siege.”

Israel has eased its blockade since a UN truce halted the conflict on August 14, but no flights can use Beirut airport and no ships can dock in Lebanese ports without its permission.

Siniora said Lebanon hoped France, which had been expected to provide 2 000 troops to the UN force, would reconsider its decision to send only 200.

“We welcome a bigger French role ...
and we would have liked France to contribute more soldiers,” Siniora said.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy indicated that more troops could follow once the terms of the mission are set.

The UN has circulated new rules of engagement for the UN troops, which permit soldiers to shoot in self-defence, use force to protect civilians and resist armed attempts to interfere with their duties, a UN document says.

Douste-Blazy said one of Unifil’s main tasks will be to enforce an arms embargo to prevent Hezbollah from rearming.

Israel wants UN troops to police border crossings to prevent weapons reaching Hezbollah, citing this as a reason for not fully lifting its air and sea curbs on Lebanon.

The war, in which nearly 1 200 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed, erupted when Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

The Lebanon crisis has overshadowed violence in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, where two journalists with US television news channel Fox were kidnapped last week.

A previously unknown militant group, the “Holy Jihad Brigades”, claimed responsibility on Wednesday and demanded the US release “Muslim prisoners” within 72 hours.

The group released a video of the captives, an American and a New Zealander, but did not say what would happen if the US did not meet their demand.

The video bore many hallmarks of videos of captives issued by militants in Iraq, and the rhetoric of the group also seemed to mirror the heavily religious language of Iraqi insurgents.—Reuters

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