/ 30 August 2006

Israel rejects UN call to end Lebanon blockade

Israel rejected a call by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on Wednesday to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon, saying it will only end the seven-week-old siege once all aspects of a ceasefire are in place.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also told Annan he will not withdraw Israeli troops fully from southern Lebanon until the full implementation of the ceasefire, which took effect on August 14 and ended 34 days of conflict with Hezbollah guerrillas.

Olmert’s statements effectively amounted to a rejection of the two main requests Annan had come to Jerusalem to discuss, but Annan later played down the differences of opinion, saying his and Olmert’s thinking were not so far apart.

“There isn’t that much of a difference between Prime Minister Olmert and myself,” Annan told a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah when asked about the apparent failure of his bid to strengthen the two-week-old ceasefire.

Annan, who visited Lebanon on Monday and Tuesday, later left for Amman, where he will meet Jordan’s King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib on Thursday. Annan’s Middle East tour also includes Syria and Iran.

During an hour of talks with Olmert, Annan said he pressed for a lifting of the embargo, imposed after the start of the war against Hezbollah on July 12, on economic grounds.

Olmert said any relaxation of pressure on Lebanon’s ports and airspace depends on the full implementation of UN Resolution 1701, which governs the ceasefire with Hezbollah. “The [resolution] is a fixed buffet and everything will be implemented, including the lifting of the blockade, as part of the entire implementation of the different articles,” he said.

Olmert was equally firm when Annan suggested Israel should withdraw its troops from Lebanon within “days or weeks” once up to 5 000 UN-backed peacekeepers are on the ground. “Israel will pull out of Lebanon once the resolution is implemented,” Olmert said, indicating a longer timeline.

The UN force in south Lebanon, Unifil, said Israeli troops withdrew from near three villages in the far southeast of Lebanon on Wednesday. Unifil will patrol the area to make sure the Israelis are not present in the area, a statement added.

Economic millstone

Olmert reiterated his call for the UN force to be deployed not just in southern Lebanon but also along the border with Syria, a deployment that the UN resolution makes dependent on a request from the Lebanese government.

Annan had made lifting the blockade his top priority for his visit to Israel, after describing it as a “humiliation” for Lebanon as well as an economic millstone.

The secretary general said he hoped to double to 5 000 the number of UN troops in Lebanon soon and urged Israel and Hezbollah to end swiftly disputes blocking a lasting ceasefire.

Resolution 1701 calls for a deployment of 15 000 UN peacekeepers by November 4, alongside Lebanese army forces.

In another sign that Annan had made little progress in his discussions with Israeli leaders, he did not take questions from journalists after meeting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and neither was forthcoming about their hour-long talks.

Annan restricted himself to saying he hoped Resolution 1701 could be the basis for a durable peace.

On a visit to southern Lebanon on Tuesday, Annan said “serious irritants” to the truce are also the fate of captured Israeli soldiers and that of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel.

Lebanese Energy and Water Minister Mohammed Fneish, one of two Hezbollah ministers in the government, said the Shi’ite Muslim movement will free the two Israeli soldiers it seized on July 12 only as part of a prisoner exchange.

“The goal of this operation [on July 12] was to conduct indirect negotiations and a swap. This was the position before the [Israeli] aggression and it’s only natural to reinforce it after the aggression,” he told a news conference.

On Israel’s other front, Israeli forces killed three Palestinian gunmen and four civilians on Wednesday, pressing on with an offensive in an Islamic militant stronghold in Gaza City, medics and witnesses said.

The latest casualties in the Shijaia neighbourhood raised to 13 the number of Palestinians killed over the past 24 hours in Israeli attacks on militants in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

After talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Annan said he supports the idea of a Palestinian unity government that Palestinian leaders hope could ease foreign sanctions imposed after Hamas won elections.

“This is a very important process,” he said. Abbas has renewed efforts to create a partnership between his Fatah movement and the governing Hamas militant group. — Reuters

Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki and Laila Bassam in Beirut and Jonathan Saul in Jerusalem