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French Version

Annan expects siege to end Thursday

Israel should lift its blockade of Lebanon within 48 hours, UN chief Kofi Annan said Tuesday as he stepped up efforts to release Israeli prisoners and shore up a fragile truce in Lebanon.

Annan's announcement of an imminent end to the crippling nearly eight-week air and sea blockade was the latest result obtained by the UN secretary general on his marathon tour of the Middle East.

On Monday, the UN secretary general said he had appointed a mediator to secure the release of two Israeli soldiers, whose capture by Hizbullah on July 12 sparked a month-long war.

In Egypt on the latest leg of his tour, Annan was asked by reporters after meeting President Hosni Mubarak if he expected Israel to lift its blockade of Lebanon. "Yes, within 48 hours," Annan answered. "Because we are all working very hard and with a bit of goodwill and reasonableness, we should be able to resolve it within the next 48 hours."

Annan arrived in Ankara late Tuesday for talks with Turkish leaders focusing on the situation in Lebanon, the Anatolia news agency reported.

Israel imposed its air and sea blockade on Lebanon shortly after unleashing its 34-day offensive against Lebanon on July 12, saying it was aimed at preventing the party from rearming.

The Jewish state has said the blockade would be lifted once a UN-brokered truce that went into effect on August 14 has been fully implemented under Security Council Resolution 1701.

Among other things, the resolution calls for Hizbullah to be disarmed and for the unconditional release of the two captive Israeli soldiers.

Annan said both Israel and Hizbullah had agreed to negotiate the release of the two servicemen and announced he had appointed a mediator to secure a deal.

"I'm hopeful that my facilitator will be able to work expeditiously with the parties to come forward with an acceptable solution for both parties," Annan said in Alexandria.

Hizbullah is demanding that Israel release Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the soldiers but the Jewish state made it clear it would not negotiate directly with the party, which it considers a terrorist organization.

"Israel sees the Lebanese government and the UN, within the framework of Resolution 1701, as the only ones responsible for the unconditional release of the kidnapped soldiers," an Israeli spokeswoman said.

More than 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, in the conflict.

Annan also met Egyptian Foreign Minister Abu al-Gheit Tuesday and was expected to hold further talks with Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.

His discussions had been expected to focus on the fate of a third Israeli soldier abducted on June 25 by Gaza militant groups, including the armed wing of the governing Palestinian movement Hamas.

Annan has already visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Syria and Iran as part of his regional tour. He arrived in Turkey late Tuesday after his talks in Egypt.

In Doha on Monday, Annan secured Qatar's agreement to contribute troops to the UN peacekeeping force being deployed in South Lebanon, the first Arab nation to do so although several Muslim states have offered help.

The troop pledge was intended to "tell the world that there is an Arab presence, however small, and to say to Israel that we believe in this resolution and that we want to implement it," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr al-Thani said.

So far the bulk of the international force, which could eventually include as many as 15,000 troops, is made up of European soldiers, with Italy and France contributing the largest contingents.

Annan said that he wants Israel to withdraw from South Lebanon as soon as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon is established and "credible," Spanish newspaper El Pais quoted him as saying in an interview published Tuesday.

"When we can count on a credible force on the ground, I think 5,000 international troops, Israel should withdraw, without waiting for the full deployment of the 15,000 men foreseen," Annan said in an interview from Qatar.

"As long as the Israelis remain in the zone certain Lebanese will think their land is occupied," he said.

"An error of calculation or an Israeli action could provoke an unfortunate reaction," the UN leader told the Spanish daily.

Beirut 06-09-2006
The Daily Star

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