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Annan assails Israeli blockade while on a visit to Middle East

JERUSALEM -- Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, said yesterday that Israel's air and sea blockade of Lebanon was a ``humiliation," and demanded that it be lifted. But Israel said that it first needed assurances that forces deployed on the border could stop weapons shipments to Hezbollah.

The dispute was the latest threat to the fragile cease-fire, which was instituted after 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

In Washington yesterday, the Bush administration moved against a key fund-raising arm of Hezbollah, the militant Shi'ite Muslim movement that is part of Lebanon's government, ordering a freeze on its assets in the United States and making it illegal for Americans to contribute to the organization.

The action against the Islamic Resistance Support Organization was intended in part to demonstrate the link between the group and terrorist activities. The Treasury Department released copies of a receipt issued by the group to a donor, which on the back listed projects such as ``collection box project for the children and homes," ``contribution to the cost of a rocket" and ``contribution to the cost of bullets."

The donor, whose name was edited out of the documents, used ink to signal his interest in helping fund a rocket.

Annan arrived in Israel as part of an 11-day Middle East tour that was intended to shore up the truce, aimed at helping Lebanon to recover, and at securing the release of two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah on July 12 sparked the fighting.

``We need to resolve the issue of the abducted soldiers very quickly," Annan said in a visit earlier yesterday to a UN base in southern Lebanon. ``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."

In Israel, Annan met with Defense Minister Amir Peretz and urged that the blockade be lifted ``as soon as possible, in order to allow Lebanon to go on with normal commercial activities and also rebuild its economy."

Israel has said it would allow free movement once it is assured that the forces deployed on Lebanon's borders can prevent Hezbollah from rearming itself. Israel wants international forces to help patrol the Lebanon-Syria border to enforce an arms embargo on Hezbollah. Lebanon says its troops can secure the border.

Peretz said he had told Annan about the importance of controlling the border ``and the implementation of the embargo against the transfer of arms and ammunition between Syria and Lebanon."

Annan said Israel was responsible for most of the violations of the cease-fire, and appealed for everyone to work together to ensure that the peace remains.

Israeli troops are still occupying a security zone in southern Lebanon. They have fought sporadically with Hezbollah guerrillas since the truce took effect Aug. 14. Israel says it will not leave until a sufficiently strong contingent of Lebanese and international troops arrives in the region.

Annan said that the United Nations hoped to have 5,000 soldiers in the region by Friday. That is double the prewar number of the force, but it is still far short of the 15,000 international troops that are expected to patrol the border, with 15,000 Lebanese soldiers.

``Israel will pull out once there is a reasonable level of forces there," Peretz said. He did not say how many soldiers might be acceptable.

As part of the effort to get international troops on the ground quickly, a five-ship Italian fleet departed for Lebanon yesterday, carrying 800 soldiers.

Annan is scheduled to meet today with the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who plans to call for ``the unconditional return of our captives in Lebanon," said a spokeswoman, Miri Eisin.

Eisin was referring to the two reserve soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. A third soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, was captured by militants linked to Hamas, from an army post near the Gaza Strip on June 25.

Hezbollah ``must first of all give us a sign of life," said Regev's brother, Benny.

Annan visited UN forces in Naqoura, about 2 1/2 miles north of the Israeli border, where the base for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon is located. He was briefed by Major General Alain Pellegrini of France, the UNIFIL commander, and by other leading UN officials in the region.

Material from The Washington Post was included in this report.

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