Annan urges Lebanon to hand over Israeli soldiers

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan told Lebanese ministers on Monday he wanted the two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah sparked a 34-day war with Israel to be handed to the Red Cross, a government source said.

The source, who attended Annan’s meeting with the Lebanese cabinet, said Annan had also said he would ask Syrian President Bashar al-Assad later this week to establish diplomatic ties with Lebanon and to control the Syrian side of their border.

Annan, who is due in Israel on Tuesday, is seeking progress on all the complex issues between Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah mentioned in Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for an expanded UN peacekeeping force to cement the August 14 truce.

“We have a chance now to have a long-term ceasefire and a long-term peace and we all need to work together,” Annan said after talks with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a key ally of Hezbollah, which has nominated him to negotiate on its behalf.

Annan also held separate talks with Energy Minister Mohammed Fneish, one of two Hezbollah Cabinet ministers, a Lebanese official said.

The UN resolution authorised up to 13 000 soldiers to join 2 000 the United Nations Unifil troops already in Lebanon and help 15 000 Lebanese troops police a border zone free of Israeli or Hezbollah forces.

The new force’s role was a central topic in Annan’s talks with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, as was the lifting of an Israeli sea and air blockade in force for nearly seven weeks.

“We expect good to come out of these talks,” Siniora told reporters afterwards. “On lifting the blockade, this thing is going to happen, God willing, but not within 24 hours.”

Israel says it will keep up the air and sea restrictions until an arms embargo on Hezbollah is enforced. It wants UN troops to guard Lebanon’s 375km border with Syria.

“We discussed ...
the arrival of the international forces and the Israeli withdrawal that must happen quickly,” Siniora said.

Plans for the UN force firmed up after Annan met European foreign ministers who on Friday pledged up to 7 000 troops—enough to ensure the expanded Unifil will have a European core.

Turkey agreed in principle to send troops to the UN force, a spokesperson in Ankara said on Monday. He gave no figures.

Berri, who said he had complained to Annan about Israel’s truce violations, could play a key role in any negotiations to swap Lebanese prisoners for two Israeli soldiers whose seizure in a cross-border raid on July 12 sparked the war.

Pressure on government

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah spoke on Sunday of contacts that might lead to talks on a prisoner swap. He also called for a national-unity government, without demanding more power for Hezbollah, which now has two Cabinet ministers.

His main Christian ally, retired General Michel Aoun, told a news conference on Monday it was time for the Siniora government to go and appeared to threaten unrest if it did not do so.

“We hope ... a very peaceful change takes place, preserving stability in the country. If this change does not happen in such a way, there are other ways to escalate from now on,” he said.

In Damascus, US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson met exiled Hamas leaders to try to broker a swap between Israel and Palestinian militants holding another Israeli soldier.

Hamas politburo member Mohammed Nazzal told Reuters Jackson had met the group’s leader Khaled Meshaal on Sunday night.

“We insist that any exchange of prisoners must be simultaneous, which is the main sticking point,” Nazzal said.

Israel has launched attacks in the Gaza Strip since June 28 to try to recover the soldier and end cross-border rocket fire.

In the latest Gaza clashes, Israeli forces killed two members of a Hamas-led security force, two presidential guards and a civilian, Palestinian officials said.

As well as visiting Beirut, Annan was expected to travel to southern Lebanon and to Israel on Tuesday. A Syrian official said Annan would go to Damascus on Thursday. The UN chief was also due to visit Iran as part of his Middle East tour. The United States accuses Syria and Iran, Hezbollah’s main allies, of stirring up the conflict in Lebanon and backing Palestinian militant groups such as the ruling Hamas movement.

French President Jacques Chirac said Iran and Syria should not isolate themselves from the rest of the world, but instead work towards building a lasting peace in the Middle East.—Reuters

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