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Israel refuses UN appeal on Lebanon

Olmert spurns Annan's call to lift the blockade

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declined yesterday to lift Israel's six-week blockade of Lebanon despite appeals from visiting United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said it would help Lebanon's government and economy recover from a devastating war.

In a news conference here following a meeting between the two men, Olmert said Israel would restrict passage to Lebanon by land, sea, and air until a multinational peacekeeping force arrived in south Lebanon and the remaining terms of a UN-brokered cease-fire were fulfilled.

The prime minister, suffering politically at home for his handling of the war, is concerned the Shi'ite militia Hezbollah could replenish its arsenal if the blockade is lifted too early. But Annan, who called the blockade ``a humiliation" for Lebanon a day earlier, suggested that lifting it would help bolster a cease-fire that has been tested by both sides since taking hold just over two weeks ago.

``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 had no problems," Annan said at the news conference held at the prime minister's official residence.

Annan's visit to the region was designed to give momentum to efforts now underway to implement the cease-fire resolution that ended 34 days of war earlier this month. An estimated 1,200 Lebanese were killed in the fighting, most of them civilians, while 117 Israeli soldiers and 41 civilians died in combat and from Hezbollah rocket fire.

But the multinational force at the heart of the agreement has been slow in deploying across a region of south Lebanon that stretches from the Litani River to the Israeli border, a strip roughly 18 miles wide. Annan sought here, as well as in Lebanon during his visit there the previous day, to focus international attention on the war's aftermath at a precarious moment for the truce.

During his stop here, Annan informed Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz that Israel has violated the terms of the cease-fire far more often than Hezbollah, according to a UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The secretary general drew on reports compiled by UN monitors that cite Israel for roughly 64 violations, which include Israeli over flights, resupplying forces and attacks on Hezbollah positions. Hezbollah has broken the truce four times, according to the reports. Nonetheless, Annan said, his meetings with Israeli and Lebanese officials indicated that both sides appeared committed to maintaining the truce.

The Israeli military began enforcing the blockade of Lebanon following the July 12 capture of two soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas in another raid into Israel, an act that sparked weeks of war. Annan said yesterday he would work for the soldiers' release, an element of the cease-fire agreement that Olmert has emphasized in public remarks.

The resolution calls for the deployment of 15,000 multinational troops alongside an equal number of Lebanese national forces. Multinational forces are now gathering in Hezbollah's southern stronghold, a region whose roads, bridges, and villages were battered by Israel's bombing campaign.

Annan said roughly 2,500 UN-backed troops are in place, not including Lebanese Army units that have arrived. He said he hoped Israel would lift the blockade when the deployment reaches 5,000 UN peacekeepers, a figure that he estimated could be reached in ``the coming days and weeks."

But Olmert, who repeated his hope that international forces would also patrol Lebanon's border with Syria, said the timing of the withdrawal of Israeli forces and the end of the broader blockade is tied to the full implementation of the cease-fire resolution. Hezbollah is sponsored chiefly by Iran and its weapons supply line runs through Syria, Israeli officials say.

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," Olmert said.

Also yesterday, the UN's humanitarian chief , Jan Egeland, accused Israel of ``shocking" and ``completely immoral" behavior for dropping large numbers of cluster bombs on Lebanon when a cease-fire in its war with Hezbollah was in sight.

The remarks were unusually harsh even for Egeland, who often ignores an unwritten rule that UN officials should not criticize member states too severely.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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