Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Blair delivers pledge of support for army's presence in South

Blair delivers pledge of support for army's presence in South; Outgoing premier plays down role in delaying cease-fire
Compiled by Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: British Premier Tony Blair pledged to help train and strengthen Lebanon's army, now deployed in the South for the first time in decades. On his first visit to Beirut, Blair was greeted by angry demonstrators protesting his position on Israel's war against Lebanon. In a joint news conference with his Lebanese counterpart, Blair said that Britain will provide "training, equipment, and any help we can give." Blair also said his country would commit over $75 million in aid to Lebanon this year.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora asked for Blair's help with postwar reconstruction and in the "empowerment and enhancement of our army and our internal security forces." As Blair stood beside Siniora, Caoimhe Butterly, an Irish peace activist, shouted that the British leader's visit was "an insult." "Shame on you Tony Blair," Butterly yelled, holding a banner that read: "Boycott Israeli apartheid." Her protest was captured by live television cameras, until security guards, holding her by her arms and legs, hauled her out. The two leaders watched in silence, then Siniora said: "It's all right. We are a democracy ... We respect all sorts of expression." Blair said he understood the anger in Lebanon, where people saw his refusal to call for an immediate cease-fire as implicit support of Israel's aggression, which killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians. "Of course feelings run high, innocent people lost their lives here, this country has been set back by years," said Blair, the second Western leader to come to Beirut since fighting erupted in July. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin arrived in the Lebanese capital July 17, on the fifth day of the war. Blair has defended his stance on the war, saying it was important to take the time to craft a settlement that would hold rather than settle for a quick peace likely to collapse. Siniora urged the British leader to work to revive efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict through the UN Security Council on the basis of an Arab plan that offers Israel peace if it withdraws from Arab land occupied in 1967. "Only by addressing the underlying causes can we guarantee peace and security for the Middle East," Siniora said. Blair vowed to use the rest of his time in office seeking Middle East peace. "It is important that we do everything we can to re-energize that [peace] process, to give ourselves the best chance of achieving a lasting, comprehensive settlement of that issue with two states living side by side in peace," Blair said. "I hope out of what has been a tragic and terrible time, we can rebuild in a way that gives not just lasting peace here in the Lebanon but a lasting peace in the region," Blair said. "I believe it can be done. And furthermore I commit myself for the remainder of my time in office to do everything I can to bring that about." Blair arrived in Beirut after a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he pushed for a resumption of the peace process and the formation of a Palestinian national unity government. Siniora, along with Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, greeted Blair at the airport and they drove into Beirut together in a 22-vehicle motorcade, amid tight security measures, with police cordoning off a large section of Downtown Beirut to traffic and prohibiting parking on the route of Blair's motorcade. Siniora's office had said Blair would also meet Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. But sources close to Berri said Sunday he would be "out of town." Asked whether it was a snub, Blair's spokesman said: "That's a matter for Nabih Berri." He said Blair would meet the Lebanese Cabinet, except for its two Hizbullah members - who chose not to attend the meeting - although he would have been "perfectly happy" to do so. Salloukh, a Shiite minister close to both Berri and Hizbullah, said that "on the official level and out of commitment to protocol and diplomatic norms we greeted Mr. Blair." "But this does not stop us from expressing our opposition to the British stance during the Israeli aggression on Lebanon especially facilitating the arrival of destructive armaments to Israel through Britain," referring to the use of British airports by US jets carrying missiles to Israel. A spokesman for Blair said the visit was aimed at expressing Britain's support for UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for deployment of a beefed-up international force in Lebanon and the disarmament of Hizbullah. - Agencies

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