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Italians bolster UN force in Lebanon

Beirut rejects call for Israeli talks

BEIRUT -- Italian soldiers moved into southern Lebanon in trucks and armored vehicles yesterday as the first big wave of international peacekeepers took up positions to monitor a shaky truce between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas. Lebanese officials, meanwhile, scoffed at the Israeli prime minister's call for peace talks.

Israeli officials said they expect the army to be out of Lebanese territory within the next two weeks, when they decide whether sufficient UN forces have arrived in south Lebanon to enforce the truce. The officials, who declined to be named, did not say when Israel would lift its blockade.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued his call for peace talks while touring a school in northern Israel.

``How natural, how understandable it would be for the prime minister of Lebanon to respond to the many calls I have made toward him and say, `Come on, let's sit, shake hands, make peace, and end once and for all the hostility, the jealousy, the hatred that some of my people have toward you,' " Olmert said.

The Lebanese information minister, Ghazi Aridi, responded angrily.

``Let him dream on. He will never see the day," Aridi said of Olmert. ``Before he talks about peace, he is required to withdraw his troops from Lebanon and lift the blockade.

``Olmert must know that Lebanon will never negotiate with Israel or with him," Aridi said. There is ``absolutely no trust between Lebanon and Israel."

Last week, the Lebanese prime minister, Fuad Saniora, also rejected the idea of talks, saying that Lebanon would ``be the last Arab country that could sign a peace agreement with Israel."

After weeks of delays since the truce between Israel and Hezbollah took effect, the strengthened UN force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, has begun to take shape. But it could take months for it to reach its full strength of 15,000.

Under the cease-fire plan, 15,000 Lebanese soldiers were also scheduled to be deployed to assert control over a Hezbollah stronghold south of the Litani River and to prevent arms from reaching the guerrillas.

The first large batch of international peacekeepers arrived in Lebanon yesterday, with soldiers and marines from two Italian regiments reaching bases in the south.

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