Annan urges release of 2 Israeli soldiers

Israel ordered to end Lebanese blockade

August 29, 2006|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan demanded yesterday the release of two Israeli soldiers held by the Hezbollah militia, and ordered Israel to lift its blockade on Lebanon.

Annan's sharply worded remarks came during a visit to Lebanon aimed at shoring up a U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution adopted two weeks ago in an effort to end more than a month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

"It's a fixed menu," Annan said in response to complaints from both Israel and Hezbollah that their adversary was not complying fully with the resolution. "It's not a smorgasbord or a la carte where you can pick and choose."

He warned that failure to abide by the resolution's terms could restart fighting that has already left hundreds dead.

Annan, here at the start of an 11-day tour of the Middle East, repeated the resolution's call for an "unconditional" release of the soldiers taken in a July 12 raid, suggesting they be turned over to a third party such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"I am urging my Israeli interlocutors to lift immediately the blockade on Lebanon," Annan added, a reference to Israel's interference in air travel and blocking of some ships headed to Lebanese ports.

Israeli officials gave no indication yesterday that they would lift such measures soon.

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah left more than 1,000 civilians dead on both sides, severely damaged civilian infrastructure in Lebanon and drained millions of dollars from the economies of both Israel and Lebanon.

The month-long conflict has reinvigorated domestic and international calls for the disarming of Hezbollah.

Annan reaffirmed that the thousands of international peacekeeping troops that the United Nations plans to send to southern Lebanon would have the authority to defend themselves and civilians, but would not actively disarm Hezbollah or any other militiamen.

"This is something that the Lebanese government and people are going to have to resolve," he said at a news conference.

Hezbollah and U.N. officials said preliminary talks for the release of the two prisoners have begun. Annan met yesterday with Nabih Berri, the secular Shiite parliament speaker who often acts as an intermediary for Hezbollah. But one U.N. official said candidly that the talks remain in initial stages.

Hezbollah has come under domestic as well as international pressure to moderate its actions. After an initial rise in support for Hezbollah immediately after the fighting stopped, public opinion has begun to shift, with those critical of the organization's state within a state beginning to speak out.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, under heavy criticism for its handling of the war, announced last night that an investigative committee headed by Nahum Admoni, a former Israeli spymaster, would examine decision-making during the conflict, but would not have the power to fire officials.

In a related development, a well-known Hamas official deplored the collapse of life on the Gaza Strip into chaos and said that much of the blame belongs to Palestinians themselves.

"Gaza is suffering under the yoke of anarchy and the swords of thugs," wrote Ghazi Hamad, a former Hamas newspaper editor and the spokesman for the current Hamas government, in Sunday's Al-Ayyam, a Palestinian newspaper.

After so much optimism when Israelis pulled out of Gaza a year ago, he wrote, "life became a nightmare and an intolerable burden." He urged Palestinians to look to themselves, not to Israel, for the causes.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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