Monday, August 28, 2006

Annan Bound for Beirut

BEIRUT, Lebanon (Reuters) -- U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will discuss the deployment and role of a planned 15,000-strong peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon when he visits Beirut on Monday for the first time since the Israel-Hezbollah war.

Other issues are likely to include the lifting of an Israeli air and sea blockade of Lebanon, policing of the Lebanese-Syrian border to stop arms smuggling and a possible prisoner swap between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla group.

Annan, due to meet Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the speaker of the Lebanese parliament Nabih Berri, was seeking full implementation of U.N. Security Council resolution 1701, a U.N. spokesman said at the weekend.

The resolution ended a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah on August 14 but also made a series of demands on Israel, Lebanon and the international community which have yet to be met.

It urged the reopening of Lebanon's airports and harbors, blockaded by Israel since the start of the war, and the securing of Lebanon's land borders to prevent arms smuggling.

The resolution also called for the international community to provide enough troops to allow the United Nations to boost the size of its current UNIFIL force in Lebanon from 2,000 to 15,000.

Annan discussed the European Union contribution to the expanded force with EU leaders in Brussels on Friday. He said France, which has promised 2,000 troops, would lead it until February when Italy, which has pledged 3,000, would take over.

"We should deploy, I hope, within the next few days, not the next few weeks," Annan said after the talks.

A close aide to Siniora said Annan would brief the prime minister on the Brussels talks.

"But the government will press him first to pressure Israel to end its blockade on Lebanon because it violates Security Council resolution 1701 and threatens stability in Lebanon," the aide told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.


Israel says until the expanded UNIFIL force arrives to police southern Lebanon, the blockade is essential to prevent weapons reaching Hezbollah. Since the end of the war it has relaxed the blockade, allowing commercial planes to fly in and out of Beirut through Amman in Jordan.

The Jewish state wants U.N. troops to police the 375 km (233 miles) Lebanese-Syrian border to prevent the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah, but Syria has said such a move would be hostile and has threatened to close the border if it happens.

That would effectively cut Lebanon off from the outside world as the country's only other land border is with Israel, with which it has no diplomatic ties.

Resolution 1701 does not specifically call for the deployment of U.N. troops to the Lebanese-Syrian border but asks UNIFIL to assist the Lebanese government "at its request" in securing the country's borders.

Also expected to be discussed is the release of Israeli and Hezbollah prisoners, including two Israeli soldiers whose seizure by the Shi'ite Muslim group on July 12 sparked the war.

Hezbollah wants to exchange them for some of the thousands of Arab prisoners, including Lebanese, in Israeli jails.

Annan has said both sides will have to make "painful compromises" to get what they want.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Sunday contacts had been made that might eventually lead to negotiations over prisoners.

"It seems that Italy is trying to get into the subject. The United Nations is interested and the negotiations would be through Berri," Nasrallah said in a television interview.

An Israeli official said on Sunday: "There are no negotiations over the exchange of prisoners."

As well as visiting Beirut, Annan is expected to travel to southern Lebanon. He will go to Israel on Tuesday and is also due to visit Syria and Iran as part of his Middle East tour.