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French Version

Olmert lays out his terms for talks on Shebaa Farms

Israel said Friday it is prepared to discuss the status of the occupied Shebaa Farms area if Hizbullah disarms and if the United Nations rules the territory is Lebanese, as world diplomats stepped up efforts to shore up the cease-fire.

Hundreds of Lebanese soldiers rolled toward the country's southern border Friday, hours after Israeli troops withdrew, in a major deployment into an area the army has not occupied in decades.

Israel "would agree to discuss the issue" if the UN determines that the land belongs to Lebanon and not Syria, and if Beirut fulfils its obligations under UN resolutions 1701 and 1559, including disarming Hizbullah, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to a statement from his office.

The prime minister said he had no problem with meeting his Lebanese counterpart, Fouad Siniora, in order to discuss all the issues.

Lavrov, meanwhile, said Russia was looking into Israeli charges that Hizbullah used Russian arms supplied by Syria in the recent war. Russian laws governing arms sales stipulate no weapons can be transferred to a third party, Lavrov said.

Also in Tel Aviv, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Friday Germany would be prepared to help mediate the release of two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hizbullah if asked, but said it was premature to talk of negotiations.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Steinmeier said that he had raised the issue of the soldiers with Lebanese officials during a brief visit to Beirut on Thursday.

"In my talks with the government in Lebanon I discussed this issue of the abductees," he said. "I don't know if the time is ripe, here in Israel and in Lebanon to start the process, but if we are asked to help we would be interested in doing so." He did not elaborate.

Meanwhile, dozens of camouflaged trucks with a few vintage jeeps and armored vehicles lined a busy coastal road in Mansouri, about 15 kilometers north of the border with Israel, in the southeastern tip of Lebanon.

One of the Lebanese officers commanding the deployment said the convoy had to wait for clearance from UN troops before it could progress into a zone to the South that the Israeli Army evacuated hours earlier.

The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his troops would progress all the way to the border locality of Yarin, and would occupy a large zone along the coast.

He said he was carefully coordinating the progression with the UN because Israeli tanks still held hilltops nearby.

"We'd much rather avoid them," he said, as UN peacekeepers lower down the road announced that Lebanese troops could proceed.

The arrival of Lebanese soldiers was coordinated by the UN after the Israeli Army advised it had withdrawn from the zone overnight, a spokesman said.

"We gave clearance for the Lebanese Army to move in at 12 p.m. today," United Nations spokesman Alexander Ivanko said by telephone.

An army official in Beirut said Friday that Lebanon had complied with its part of the UN-brokered resolution, and that 15,000 soldiers had now reached the South.

The troops progressing from Mansouri Friday had stacked their trucks with chairs, kitchen utensils and water supplies as they moved into sectors they had not previously occupied.

Another contingent of French troops was due Saturday to reinforce a beefed-up UN peacekeeping force, as Spanish Navy ships carrying more than 500 troops set sail for Lebanon Friday.

In a farewell ceremony, Defense Minister Jose Antonio Alonso said the Spanish troops "will help restore hope to a land devastated by intransigence."

The only Israeli forces remaining in Lebanon are in Alma ash-Shab, also in the western sector, and in Maroun al-Ras and Aitaroun in the central sector, an AFP correspondent said.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Steinmeier that Israel hoped to complete its pullout within two weeks, once coordination had been completed with the UN force.

Italy said it would soon deploy more troops to Southern Lebanon that along with the dispatch of other European soldiers would comprise an "effective ground force," opening the way for all Israeli troops to leave.

"I think that in a week to 10 days it is possible to have an effective ground force. Spanish and French troops are deploying, it will be possible to withdraw Israeli troops," Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said before meeting Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

D'Alema said that Italy had deployed 1,000 troops to Lebanon, adding "I think in a few days we are going to deploy 2,500." He did not make it clear if the 2,500 included the initial deployment.

"I think that now we have a task to show that a multilateral force can be effective, can stabilize peace in Lebanon and can create more confidence among the Israeli public," D'Alema said.

Beirut 09-09-2006
The Daily Star

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