UN chief visits peacekeepers in south Lebanon

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The Independent Online

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon today, a day after Italy and Turkey moved to join the international force there.

Annan and his entourage left Beirut this morning in two white United Nations helicopters, and landed in Naqoura, a town on the Mediterranean coast about 2.5 miles north of the Israeli border, and home to headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL.

The UN chief was in Lebanon on the first leg of an 11-day Mideast tour that would take him to Israel, as well as to Syria and Iran — Hezbollah's main benefactors.

Annan was briefed today by French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, the UNIFIL commander, and other top officials, then reviewed an honour guard of UN troops in blue berets standing at attention on the green lawn inside the UN's white-walled compound.

He laid a wreath at a monument for peacekeepers killed in Lebanon since UNIFIL deployed here in 1978. Muslim and Christian clergymen said prayers, and the UN chief stood in silence in front of a display of portraits of those killed, including four UNIFIL members killed in an Israeli airstrike on their base in Khiam on July 25.

Annan left Naqoura after about two and a half hours, flying along the Israel-Lebanon border by helicopter. He was expected to survey two other UNIFIL posts by air, and then touch down at Khiam, before flying south to Israel.

The UN chief wore a business suit and shook hands with members of the 2,000-member force, which is being expanded to 15,000 under the UN resolution that halted fighting between Israel and Hezbollah on August 14. Flags of countries contributing troops to UNIFIL, including Annan's native Ghana, fluttered in the breeze as the band played their national anthems.

Yesterday, Annan pressed Hezbollah to release two Israeli soldiers, whose July 12 capture started the 34-day Israel-Hezbollah war, and called on Israel to lift its sea and air blockade of Lebanon.

After talks with Lebanese leaders in Beirut, the UN chief faulted both Israel and Hezbollah for not living up to key sections of the cease-fire resolution, and warned that fighting could resume if the parties did not abide by the full resolution.

"Without the full implementation of resolution 1701, I fear the risk is great for renewal of hostilities," he said.

He also toured a bombed out neighborhood in the Hezbollah stronghold of south Beirut, where hundreds of residents booed him as he toured the ruins.

Meanwhile, an Italian task force gathered off the coast of southern Italy on Tuesday to carry troops and aircraft to south Lebanon. One-thousand Marines and engineer corps specialists were leaving as the first of a 2,500-strong contingent being deployed by Italy.

Three landing platform dock ships also were departing the port of Brindisi, and a small frigate already in Cyprus was scheduled to join the Italian mission, the Defence Ministry said.

Italy yesterday approved sending 2,500 troops, the largest national contingent so far. The plan now goes to Parliament for approval, but the ships were to set sail ahead of the vote and reach the coast of Lebanon on Friday.

The peacekeeping force was to grow to 15,000, according to the Aug. 11 UN cease-fire resolution that halted fighting between Israel and Hezbollah three days later.

Yesterday, Turkey's Cabinet decided in favor of sending peacekeepers and its parliament was to convene to debate the deployment later this week or early next week, said Turkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek.

"In principle, we've decided to join the UN peacekeeping mission," Cicek said. "The issue was debated in detail, considering our country's national interests."

Cicek said the size and composition of the force would be determined by the military. Opposition to sending peacekeepers has been mounting in Turkey.

Turkey ruled Lebanon for some 400 years during the Ottoman Empire and many Turkish officials want their country to have a say in an area that they regard as their country's backyard.

The United States, the European Union and Israel were pressing Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO and a country with close ties to Israel and Arab countries, to send peacekeepers.