Lebanon ceasefire under threat, UN warns

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The Independent Online

A high-ranking UN official has warned that the week-old truce in Lebanon could soon collapse. Terje Roed-Larsen, Mr Annan's Middle East trouble-shooter, who is visiting Beirut, said: "Things very easily can slide out of control. This is why it is so important that all parties concerned exercise utmost restraint in order to give the Lebanese Army the possibility of deploying along all borders of Lebanon, and also to allow the international community to provide troops."

The warning came after Israel rejected charges by Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, that it had violated last week's ceasefire by carrying out a commando raid on a Hizbollah stronghold in eastern Lebanon.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, defended Saturday's raid during a telephone conversation with Mr Annan. He said it was "intended to prevent the resupply of new weapons and ammunition for Hizbollah" from Syria and Iran. The 34-day war, which ended in stalemate on 14 August, killed 1,183 Lebanese and 157 Israelis.

Stéphane Dujarric, a UN spokesman, said: "The secretary general is deeply concerned about a violation by the Israeli side of the cessation of hostilities. All such violations of Security Council Resolution 1701 endanger the fragile calm that was reached after much negotiation."

Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, turned the charge of violating the ceasefire back on Hizbollah and its allies. "According to Resolution 1701," he argued, "they are forbidden to rearm. Arms transfers from Syria to Hizbollah are a grave violation of the resolution. That is the breach, and Israel was responding to that."

He chastised the international community for being too slow to deploy an international force to augment the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon and on the Lebanese-Syrian border. "Had those forces been there and the arms embargo enforced, there would have been no reason for Israel to act," said Mr Regev.

France and other European nations have been reluctant to commit substantial contingents to the international force, which is supposed to total 15,000 troops, until its mission and rules of engagement are clarified.

France, which has disappointed the UN and its European allies by offering 200 troops immediately, called yesterday for an EU meeting this week to co-ordinate "European solidarity" for Lebanon. Mr Olmert repeated yesterday that Israel was opposed to Muslim nations taking part if they did not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

Amir Peretz, Israel's Defence Minister, said during a cabinet meeting yesterday that Israel must not allow the Lebanese Army, which began deploying south of the Litani river last week, to get within 2km of the Israeli border before the international force was in place. Otherwise, it would open the way for Hizbollah to return, he argued. Mr Regev said: " Israel doesn't want the truce to collapse. But the Security Council unanimously accepted our position that the ceasefire could not be exploited by Hizbollah to rearm and regroup."

Elias Murr, the Lebanese Defence Minister, said Hizbollah was committed to the ceasefire. He warned other, unnamed but presumably Palestinian, militias against rocket attacks on Israel. Such attacks, he contended, would only give Israel a pretext for renewing air strikes.

Israeli analysts believe Hizbollah needs time out to restore its fighters, its fortifications and its arsenal, all of which they say suffered more damage than the Shia militia admits. During the cabinet meeting, Israel's top military man, Lt-Gen Dan Halutz, conceded: "The feeling of the public is that it was not a knockout blow."

An Israeli colonel was killed and two other soldiers wounded during Saturday's raid on the village of Boudai in the Bekaa valley. Israeli reports claim their mission was not so much to destroy road links between Syria and Lebanon or new arms shipments, but to gather evidence that supplies had resumed in violation of the ceasefire. An army spokesman announced: "The goals of the operation were achieved in full."

According to Lebanese reports, three Hizbollah fighters were killed in the action.

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