- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

1:25 p.m.

BEIRUT — Top foreign diplomats today planned the dispatch of a 15,000-strong international force to enforce a cease-fire in southern Lebanon, but the government was divided over whether Hezbollah should lay down its arms or even withdraw them from the border with Israel.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, said it would help tens of thousands of people reconstruct homes that were destroyed in a month of war with Israel, a move likely to boost its standing among Shi’ite Muslims, who make up about 35 percent of Lebanon’s 4 million people.

The mayor of a southern town said 32 more bodies were pulled from rubble as rescue workers drove into areas that previously were inaccessible because of the heavy fighting.

Visiting Beirut today, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said France would commit troops to the United Nations peacekeeping force that will deploy in southern Lebanon but did not say how many soldiers. The international force, which will be bolstered by 15,000 troops from Lebanon, will police the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah that ended 34 days of fighting on Monday.

The diplomatic maneuvers came as the Israeli army withdrew more troops from southern Lebanon while Lebanese troops prepared to move across the Litani River tomorrow to take control of the war-ravaged region from Hezbollah guerrillas.

The Lebanese army will begin moving tomorrow into a “significant part” of southern Lebanon left behind by Israeli troops, U.N. peacekeeping official Richard Morczynski said.

Small military delegations from Israel and Lebanon agreed to details of troop movements at a meeting today with the U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL at the border crossing point at Ras Naquora. The 2,000-strong UNIFIL has been in southern Lebanon for more than two decades.

Mr. Douste-Blazy urged Israel to lift its blockade of Lebanon, saying it was unnecessary because the U.N.-imposed cease-fire was holding.

“The blockade imposed on the airport and Lebanese ports should be lifted. We ask Israeli authorities to lift the land and sea siege on Lebanon. And we ask the Lebanese government to strengthen monitoring” of points of entry to ensure Hezbollah weapons are banned, Mr. Douste-Blazy said.

The blockade was instituted shortly after fighting began July 12, when Hezbollah staged a cross-border raid and captured two Israeli soldiers. Israel bombed the Beirut international airport, blocked seaports and began destroying road links to Syria.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the blockade is still necessary until the peacekeeping force is in place to prevent the Islamic militant group from rearming.

“Israel cannot allow a situation in which Hezbollah could be strategically rearmed,” he said, adding that “Israel will do everything we can to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid to the people of Lebanon” in the interim.

The U.N. hopes 3,500 international troops can reinforce a 2,000-strong U.N. contingent already on the ground within 10 to 15 days to help consolidate the cease-fire and create conditions for Israeli forces to head home, said Assistant U.N. Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hedi Annabi.

Those plans, however, depend on the full compliance of the Lebanese government. The Cabinet had been unable to meet on the issue since the cease-fire because of divisions over what should be done about Hezbollah’s arms in the south, but it finally met late today.

Ali Hassan Khalil, a legislator who held talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora today on behalf of the Hezbollah, said “everyone was keen on having consensus.”

At least 842 people were killed in Lebanon during the 34-day campaign, most of them civilians. Israel suffered 157 dead, including 118 soldiers.

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