Syria threatens to close border with Lebanon

Syria said on Wednesday it would close its border with Lebanon if the United Nations stationed troops along it as part of its mission to enforce a UN-backed truce between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem made the threat in a meeting with Finnish counterpart Erkki Tuomioja in Helsinki.

“They indeed do not want this [the stationing of UN troops] and they announced they will close their borders if this takes place,” Tuomioja told reporters afterwards.

“I didn’t see there would be any other threat in this statement except for the fact that they will close their borders.”

Such a move could effectively cut Lebanon off from the outside world. Its only other land border is with Israel, a state it does not recognise, and there is still an Israeli air and sea blockade of Lebanon in force, imposed in July at the start of the war with Hezbollah.

Israel wants UN troops to police Syrian-Lebanese border crossings to prevent weapons reaching Hezbollah, citing this as a reason for not fully lifting the blockade.

Israel has eased the embargo since the August 14 ceasefire, but no flights can use Beirut airport and no ships can dock in Lebanese ports without its permission.

The United Nations put fresh pressure on Israel on Wednesday to lift the sea and air blockade, saying it was crucial for the country to get its economy back on its feet.

The Lebanese government is in the process of deploying 15 000 soldiers to the south to work alongside a similar number of UN peacekeeping troops.

Three Lebanese soldiers were killed on Wednesday while clearing unexploded Israeli shells, underscoring the dangers the troops, as well as tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians, face in the aftermath of the 34-day war.

They were the first Lebanese troops to die since the army began moving south last Thursday.

EU CONTRIBUTION

The UN’s bid to drum up support for a force to compliment the Lebanese army has proved difficult. About 2 000 UN soldiers already serve in Lebanon with a force called Unifil, but few nations appear willing to make up the additional 13 000.

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

A strong EU presence is seen as vital if the United Nations is to get an advance party of 3 500 troops on the ground by September 2 as planned.

The bloc held back from firm troop pledges until their foreign ministers meet on Friday with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is then to fly on to the Middle East.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said Annan would visit Hezbollah’s main sponsors Syria and Iran, as well as Israel and Lebanon, in a bid to ensure the full implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the war.

Dujarric said that “the visit to Iran, as to the other places, is to make sure that all those who have an influence in the implementation of 1701 use that influence positively.”

President George Bush spoke to Annan about the trip and the UN peacekeeping force for about 14 minutes, White House spokesperson Dana Perino said, adding that the secretary general believed progress was “being made on assembling” the force.

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

A UN demining expert told Reuters on Tuesday the Israelis had dropped cluster bombs on at least 170 sites in the south, and that those that failed to explode could still kill.

Israel said it had passed maps to Unifil which showed where its exploded shells might lie.
“We did this in an attempt to minimise casualties among the Lebanese population,” an Israeli army spokesperson said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may order a state inquiry into the Lebanon war, Channel 1 Television reported, a move that could trigger a political and military shake-up.

Some officials have previously indicated Olmert did not want the country to get bogged down in a major inquiry, but criticism has mounted over the conduct of the 34-day war in the wake of a truce that took effect last week.

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 conflict 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 United States release “Muslim prisoners” within 72 hours. - Reuters

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