Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Lebanon wants US to help lift Israel blockade

Lebanon wants US to help lift Israel blockade
By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent (REUTERS)

Lebanon urged the United States on Wednesday to make Israel remove a sea and air blockade it imposed at the start of its 34-day war with Hizbollah fighters. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora also called on Washington to boost its financial aid to help Lebanon recover from war-related economic damage running into billions of dollars. "The United States can do more," he told a news conference. "The United States can support us in putting real pressure on Israel to lift the siege."

Israel has eased its blockade since a U.N. 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. In Brussels, European Union envoys prepared to discuss the EU contribution to a U.N. force to help the Lebanese army take over the south from Hizbollah fighters who previously controlled it and from Israeli troops still occupying border pockets. The United Nations is trying to expand an existing UNIFIL peacekeeping force to 15,000 troops to monitor the truce, as mandated by a Security Council resolution adopted on August 11. Siniora said Lebanon hoped France, which had been expected to provide 2,000 troops or more, would send more than the 200 extra troops it has contributed. "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, but doubts remain over the size of the EU contingent. Italy, which has said it could send up to 3,000 troops out of a European contribution of anything up to 9,000, was expected to press fellow EU states to make firm commitments.

EU foreign ministers meet on Friday to hear from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan how the force will operate. The United Nations has circulated new rules of engagement for U.N. troops in Lebanon, which permit soldiers to shoot in self-defense, use force to protect civilians and resist armed attempts to interfere with their duties, a U.N. document says.


Douste-Blazy said one of UNIFIL's main tasks would be to enforce an arms embargo to prevent Hizbollah from rearming. He shrugged off a warning by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday that deploying foreign troops on the Syrian-Lebanese border would be a hostile act. part from helping the Lebanese army deploy in the south, UNIFIL's job would be "to safeguard the arms embargo at all the borders," Douste-Blazy told France 2 television. Israel wants U.N. troops to police Lebanese-Syrian border crossings to prevent weapons reaching Hizbollah, citing this as a reason for not fully lifting its air and sea curbs on Lebanon. More Lebanese troops moved into posts on the Syrian border posts in the southeastern Bekaa Valley, security sources said. Israel has refused to withdraw fully from the south until more UNIFIL troops arrive to back up the 15,000 Lebanese troops who have begun moving into Hizbollah strongholds.
Nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed during the war that erupted after Hizbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12. Amnesty International accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilians and said it might have committed war crimes. "The evidence strongly suggests that the extensive destruction of public works, power systems, civilian homes and industry was deliberate and an integral part of the military strategy rather than collateral damage," the rights group said. Israel denies targeting civilians and accuses Hizbollah of launching rockets from civilian areas. U.N. agencies will probably reduce their $150 million appeal for emergency aid to Lebanon now that almost all the 900,000 war-displaced people have returned home, officials said. However, many have found their homes flattened by Israeli bombardment. Thousands of unexploded Israeli cluster bombs and other munitions litter the region. Cluster bombs have already killed eight people and wounded at least 25 since the truce.
An Israeli soldier was killed and three were wounded by landmines just inside Lebanon.
An Israeli army spokesman said the incident occurred on Tuesday night. Preliminary checks showed Israel had laid the mines, although it was unclear when, the spokesman said.

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