Annan begins Mideast tour

August 30, 2006|By Ken Ellingwood and Megan K. Stack | Ken Ellingwood and Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived yesterday for talks with Israeli leaders after calling again for an end to Israel's blockade of Lebanon and the release of two captured Israeli soldiers.

Annan's visit is part of an 11-day tour through the region aimed at solidifying the cease-fire that ended the monthlong conflict between Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.

The United Nations chief, who arrived after touring war-battered southern Lebanon, met separately with Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the families of two Israeli soldiers whose abduction by Hezbollah on July 12 triggered the fighting.

Annan is scheduled to meet today with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni before traveling to the West Bank for a session with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The blockade by land, sea and air is a "humiliation" for Lebanon, Annan said during his visit to the south. Imposed soon after the outbreak of fighting, it has choked the import of goods and worsened harm to the economy caused by Israel's bombing campaign.

Following his meeting with the U.N. chief, Peretz said he hoped the embargo would end soon but offered no timetable, the Associated Press reported.

Israeli officials say they would be willing to ease the blockade once an international peacekeeping force that is being assembled and mobilized is in position to halt the cross-border flow of weapons to Hezbollah from the militant group's main backers, Syria and Iran. Annan also will visit those two nations.

"The only reason we're doing it is to stop the definite efforts by Syria and Iran to rearm Hezbollah," said Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisen.

Eisen said Israeli leaders would press Annan for details on how the international force, envisioned to eventually involve 15,000 troops, would help implement the U.N. resolution that brought an end to the fighting.

During his tour of southern Lebanon, Annan paid a visit to a headquarters for U.N. forces in the coastal town of Naqoura. He thanked the international troops there for sticking out the war while under fire from both sides and said the expected reinforcements, mainly from Europe, would soon arrive in Lebanon.

"They are never given credit for the wonderful things they have done and the sacrifices they have made," Annan said. Nearly 300 troops with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, have been killed since the force deployed there, he said.

Annan described the suffering endured by the UNIFIL troops during the Israeli bombing campaign. They survived on half a bottle of water a day, stopped taking showers and huddled in bunkers, he said.

In Jerusalem, Annan called anew for the release of the Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and again offered the help of the United Nations.

Ken Ellingwood and Megan K. Stack write for the Los Angeles Times.

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