Olmert rejects Annan's call to end Lebanon blockade

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Prime Minister has rejected a call by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, to lift the air and sea blockade of Lebanon immediately. He also declined to commit Israel to withdraw its remaining troops from southern Lebanon once the first 5,000 members of a 15,000-strong international force were deployed there alongside the Lebanese army.

Amir Peretz, the Israeli Defence Minister, hinted at more flexibility after an earlier meeting with the secretary general. He said that Israel would pull out once a "reasonable" but unspecified number of blue berets had been deployed. Mr Olmert said any relaxation of pressure on Lebanese sea and air ports depended on full implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, which led to the 14 August ceasefire that ended the 34-day war with Hizbollah. Mr Annan called the blockade a "humiliation" to Lebanon and said lifting it was necessary to foster Lebanon's post-war economic recovery.

Israel's principal concern is to prevent Iran and Syria rearming Hizbollah in defiance of a UN embargo. Mr Olmert wants UN forces to be stationed on the Syrian-Lebanese border and to monitor air and sea traffic. The UN says it can do so only if requested by the Lebanese government.

Israeli officials say the Prime Minister told Mr Annan that he was eager to end the blockade as quickly as possible. It was a question of how many UN forces were deployed and where.

The Israelis also want to ensure that Hizbollah does not return as a fighting force to Israel's northern border. And, at every opportunity, Mr Olmert reiterates his demand for the unconditional release of the two soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose abduction on 12 July provoked the war.

The secretary general later dismissed any suggestion of a snub. Mr Annan said: "There isn't that much of a difference between Prime Minister Olmert and myself."