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Israel Rejects Annan's Plea to End Lebanon Siege
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Israel on Wednesday rejected a call from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to lift its air and sea blockade on Lebanon.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the siege would only end when all elements of the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah were in place.

During an hour of talks with Olmert, Annan pressed for a lifting of the embargo, imposed after the start of the 34-day Lebanon war on July 12.

But at a news conference after their meeting, Olmert rebuffed Annan, saying any relaxation of pressure on Lebanon's ports and airspace depended 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 that Israel withdraw all its troops from southern Lebanon within "days or weeks" after up to 5,000 UN peacekeepers are deployed in the area.

"Israel will pull out of Lebanon once the resolution is implemented," Olmert said, indicating a longer timeline.

During the talks, Olmert also 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 says is dependent on a request from the Lebanese government.

His refusal to lift the crippling blockade will come as a harsh setback for Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora who said on Wednesday that he believed it could be lifted "in the next few days."

Saniora told reporters that Annan was "sincere" and said "in the next few days the blockade will be lifted."

Annan, in Jerusalem after visiting Lebanon, is struggling to strengthen the shaky, two-week-old truce that ended the war between Israel and Hezbollah. His top priority had been to lift the blockade.

He said the Lebanese saw the blockade as a "humiliation and infringement of their sovereignty."

"It is important not only because of the economic effect it is having on the country but it is also important to strengthen the democratic government of Lebanon with which Israel has repeatedly said it has no problems," he said.

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

On Tuesday, Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said Israel would pull out thousands of troops once a "reasonable" number of UN soldiers had been deployed.

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

Annan will also hold talks with Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni before traveling to the West Bank to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Aides to Annan have said he will also travel to Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's main backers, later in the week.

The UN hopes to create a buffer zone in south Lebanon free of Israeli or Hezbollah forces and policed by UN forces alongside Lebanese troops.

It is hoping that Muslim nations will send troops to balance the roughly 7,000 pledged by European countries.

The Turkish Government has agreed in principle to send soldiers, and other Muslim contributors could include Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, although Israel has objected to their taking part because they have no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

(China Daily August 31, 2006)


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