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Air and sea blockade of Lebanon will remain

Border security is key, Israel says

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that Israel has no plans to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon until an international peacekeeping force takes up positions along the Syrian border and at Beirut's airport.

Israeli officials said Olmert wasn't issuing an ultimatum. But the tough stance appeared to be an attempt to pressure the international community to send a powerful force willing to disarm Hezbollah, which fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel during 34 days of fighting.

Olmert laid down his position in a meeting with UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, who is in the region to discuss implementation of a UN-brokered cease-fire that ended the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Diplomats are still trying to hammer out final details, including the peacekeeping force's precise responsibilities.

``Olmert said deploying the force at border crossings to Syria and at the airport will allow the lifting of Israel's sea and air closure and contribute to the implementation" of the cease-fire, the prime minister's office said.

Roed-Larsen said the security situation in Lebanon would remain ``vulnerable" for the next two or three months, but said Lebanon was working to secure its borders. He said he hopes the embargo will be lifted soon.

An Aug. 11 Security Council resolution calls for a 15,000-member international force to monitor Lebanon's southern border with Israel and help the Lebanese Army assert authority throughout the country.

While the resolution does not explicitly call on the force to police the Syrian frontier, it says it should help Lebanon secure its borders and prevent arms from illicitly entering the country.

Israel says Syria is a main supplier of weapons to Hezbollah, and officials said Israel was seeking assurances that arms do not reach the group again.

The cease-fire resolution calls for a halt in arms transfers to the guerrillas, and a 2004 resolution requires the group to disarm.

``The disarmament of Hezbollah is our main objective. As long as it is not disarmed, we will defend ourselves against their being rearmed," said Miri Eisin, a senior Israeli government official. ``To do so, we're going to stop all of the routes that allow the supplies to arrive to Hezbollah -- sea, air, and land."

Israel imposed the blockade shortly after the outbreak of fighting on July 12. Since the cease-fire took hold, air traffic has largely been limited to aid flights and official delegations, while shipping is limited to relief efforts and vessels with prior authorization.

Lebanese Labor Minister Tarrad Hamadeh, a member of Hezbollah, said yesterday that Lebanon may ask Arab ships and airlines to break the Israeli blockade, a move that could lead to a broader conflict.

Lebanese officials from rival factions have also criticized the blockage.

``If Israel wants to attack, let them attack Arab ships and planes and let them shoulder the responsibility before the international community," Hamadeh said. Arab agreement to a blockade-running attempt was seen as unlikely, however.

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