- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2006

JERUSALEM — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday called Israel’s air and sea blockade of Lebanon a “humiliation,” while Israel said it won’t end the embargo until peacekeeping forces on the border can prevent Hezbollah guerrillas from importing new weapons.

Mr. Annan said the United Nations hoped to double its 2,500-member force in southern Lebanon by Friday, but that number was still far short of the 15,000 international troops authorized under a Security Council cease-fire resolution approved Aug. 11.

The U.N. chief arrived in Israel after visiting U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, who will play a key role in maintaining the fragile truce that ended 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

His visits to Lebanon and Israel occurred a day after Italy and Turkey moved to join the international force in southern Lebanon.

Mr. Annan said he told Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz about lifting the blockade on Lebanon “as soon as possible in order to allow Lebanon to go on with normal commercial activities and also rebuild its economy.”

During an earlier visit to Naqoura in south Lebanon, Mr. Annan said, “We need to deal with the lifting of the embargo — sea, land and air — which for the Lebanese is a humiliation and an infringement on their sovereignty.”

Israel wants international forces to help patrol the Lebanon-Syria border to stop the arms flow. Lebanon has said its troops would be able to secure the border on their own.

Mr. Peretz said Israel hoped to end the blockade soon, though he did not clarify when that would happen. Israel has demanded that Lebanese and international forces take control of the Lebanon-Syria border to prevent Hezbollah guerrillas from smuggling in arms.

Mr. Annan also met last night with the relatives of the two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah guerrillas sparked the fighting and another Israel soldier previously captured by Hamas-allied militants.

Mr. Annan earlier visited U.N. peacekeepers in Naqoura, about 2 miles north of the Israeli border, and the base for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

He laid a wreath at a monument for peacekeepers killed in Lebanon since UNIFIL deployed here in 1978.

Meanwhile, an Italian task force, led by the country’s only aircraft carrier, the Giuseppe Garibaldi, sailed from southern Italy for Lebanon. Italy on Monday approved sending 2,500 troops, the largest national contingent so far.

Spain’s Defense Ministry said a marine unit was ordered to prepare for deployment to Lebanon to join the U.N. peacekeeping force. The ministry would not disclose the number of troops, but Spain’s Socialist government reportedly is considering sending between 700 and 1,000.

A battalion of 900 French soldiers will arrive in Lebanon in mid-September to help boost the peacekeeping force, the Defense Ministry said. France now has about 400 soldiers in the force and plans to expand that number to 2,000.

On Monday, Turkey’s Cabinet decided in favor of sending peacekeepers and its parliament was to debate the deployment later this week or early next week.

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