Israel: Situation in Lebanon ‘Explosive’

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BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Israel’s foreign minister said Wednesday the situation in Lebanon was “explosive” while Syria’s president says the deployment of international troops along the Syria-Lebanon border would be a “hostile” act.

The escalating rhetoric came as the 10-day cease-fire was shaken by the deaths of three Lebanese soldiers killed defusing a missile and an Israeli killed by a land mine in south Lebanon.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora urged the U.S. to help end Israel’s sea and air blockade, saying his country was making “every effort” to secure its borders.

“Time is working against those who would like to see this resolution applied,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said after talks her French counterpart, Phillipe Douste-Blazy. “We are now in the most sensitive and explosive position.”

“We therefore need extremely quick action from the international community,” she said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad was quoted as saying he would consider such a deployment along the Lebanon-Syria border a “hostile” move toward his country.

“First, this means creating a hostile condition between Syria and Lebanon,” Assad told Dubai Television, according to excerpts released by the TV station ahead of the broadcast. “Second, it is a hostile move toward Syria and naturally it will create problems.”

Assad did not elaborate on that point in the excerpts. But Finland’s foreign minister, after meeting with his Syrian counterpart, said Damascus threatened to close the frontier with Lebanon if U.N. peacekeepers were deployed there.

“They will close their borders for all traffic in case U.N. troops will be deployed along the Lebanon-Syria border,” Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said after meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Helsinki. Finland holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

“This closing of the border would certainly have negative consequences for the people living in the region,” Tuomioja told reporters after his meeting with Moallem.

An Aug. 11 U.N. resolution outlined a cease-fire agreement that called for a 15,000-member force of international peacekeepers and another 15,000 Lebanese army troops to deploy to southern Lebanon, as Israeli troops withdraw.

But efforts to raise the force were moving slowly with the European Union nations expected to lead it reluctant to commit troops without safeguards to ensure they do not get sucked into the conflict.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would not lift its air and sea blockade until international peacekeepers were deployed at the Beirut international airport and along the Lebanese border with Syria. Hezbollah’s vast arsenal of rockets and other weapons is believed to originate in Iran and reach the guerrillas across the Syrian border.

“The United States can support us in putting real pressure on Israel to lift the siege,” the Western-backed Saniora said Wednesday. His government has called the blockade a violation of the U.N.-brokered cease-fire, and has asked the international community to intervene.

Olmert’s tough stance on the blockade appeared to be an attempt to pressure the international community to speed the dispatch of a vanguard of the 15,000-strong force of international peacekeepers called for by the cease-fire agreement.

Sporadic violence has marked the U.N.-brokered cease-fire that took hold Aug. 14 and ended 34 days of ferocious fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. But the truce has held thus far.

The cease-fire was tested Wednesday when the Israeli army fired artillery into a disputed border region in response to what it said was an attack from inside Lebanon.

Lebanese security and military officials said there had been no fire by either Hezbollah or the Lebanese army in the region. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with reporters.

Israel claimed there was a three-hour exchange of fire in the disputed Israeli-occupied Chebaa Farms area, where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet.

Lebanese security officials said Israeli military fired artillery into the village of Chebaa, which is controlled by Lebanon. The officials said the artillery fire landed near Lebanese army positions but no one was hurt.

Lebanese troops entered the village of Chebaa last week for the first time in four decades as part of an eventual deployment of 15,000 troops in southern Lebanon under the cease-fire deal.

Lebanon has demanded that Israel hand over maps of the mine emplacements in the region. Hezbollah guerrillas also have laid mines in the south before and during the recent fighting to stop the Israeli army’s ground push.

Three Lebanese soldiers were killed Wednesday near the village of Tibnine while they dismantled an unexploded missile in southern Lebanon, Lebanese security officials said.

Earlier in the day, an Israeli soldier was killed and three others were wounded by a land mine Israel planted in southern Lebanon, Israeli officials said. The soldier was the second casualty since the truce.

The Israeli military said it could not confirm the incident.

Hundreds of Israeli troops have remained on the positions in southern Lebanon they occupied during the war as they wait for a U.N. peacekeeping force to move in and guarantee a buffer zone between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

Diplomats said EU talks in Belgium on Wednesday were unlikely to produce a breakthrough, though there were expectations that nations may come forward with at least tentative offers of more troops ahead of a meeting scheduled Friday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Saniora also said Wednesday his government would accept a $230 million aid package offered by President Bush, despite widespread criticism in Lebanon of U.S. support for Israel.

The New York Sun

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