Lebanon PM believes Israeli blockade could be lifted 'in next few days'

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The Independent Online

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said Wednesday that he believed the Israeli air and sea blockade of his country could be lifted "in the next few days."

Saniora told a news conference that he believed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who visited Lebanon and was in Israel Wednesday, was "sincere" in his efforts to lift the blockade, which Israel imposed early in its 34-day war with Hezbollah guerrillas.

He said all efforts to lift the siege on Lebanon's airport and seaports could bear fruit and "that in the next few days the blockade will be lifted."

But Israel sidestepped Annan's demands on Wednesday that the blockade be lifted immediately and that it withdraw its forces from Lebanon once 5,000 international troops were deployed there.

In a joint news conference with Annan, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested Israel was only prepared to do that once a U.N.-brokered cease-fire deal was implemented fully. The agreement ended 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

Under the deal, some 15,000 Lebanese soldiers and an equal number of international troops are to be deployed and enforce an arms embargo on Hezbollah. Currently, some 2,500 U.N. observers are monitoring the Israel-Lebanon border, but have a very limited mandate.

Israel has said the blockade was to prevent Hezbollah from rearming. Lebanon has demanded the siege be lifted and has called on the United States to intervene.

Saniora said that while he was in Beirut, Annan "felt and realized what humiliation for the Lebanese the blockade was."

Israel has also said it would not lift its blockade unless international forces, along with Lebanese troops, were deployed not only on the Israel-Lebanon border, but also on Lebanon's frontier with Syria, to prevent the flow of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah.

Syria has said it would consider the presence of international troops on its border a hostile act and Lebanon has said it would deploy its own forces there, but not let international troops patrol in the area.

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