Syria allows arms into Lebanon, UN asserts
DAMASCUS The United Nations has reports that Syria is permitting arms to cross its border into Lebanon, and Secretary General Kofi Annan plans to demand an end to the illegal traffic when he meets Friday with Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, UN officials said Thursday.
In addition, they said, Annan will challenge Assad to establish diplomatic relations between Damascus and Beirut and settle a long-festering dispute over his country's borders with Lebanon.
The officials, who agreed to discuss Annan's strategy only if they were not identified, noted that all the steps were obligations of Syria in the unanimously adopted UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which halted the fighting between the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia and Israel on Aug. 14.
"Because of that, the secretary general is entering with a very strong hand," one of the officials said.
A central issue of the current diplomacy - and an original demand of Israel, strongly supported by the United States - is that Hezbollah be disarmed as part of any cease-fire. Resolution 1701 calls for the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon.
Annan is in the midst of an 11-day tour of the Mideast to seek compliance with the resolution, and the officials claimed he was acting with unaccustomed directness in what was probably the last major diplomatic journey of his 10 years in office, which end Dec. 31.
The three steps that Annan intended to press upon Assad on Friday were all aimed at shoring up Lebanon as an independent country free of outside interference. Syria dominated Lebanon for most of the past three decades, and, by financing and arming Hezbollah, the officials said, Damascus continues to undermine Beirut's ability to establish its own authority.
In Israel, which Annan visited Tuesday, the officials said that Annan had found a new willingness to discuss a prisoner exchange as a way of gaining the return of the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah on July 12. The action provoked the 34-day war.
Repatriating the two has become a priority with the Israeli public, which is putting pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his failure to achieve the war's original goals of dismantling and disarming Hezbollah.
"Getting the prisoners back has swum to the top of the agenda," one official said. Where Israel had resisted all such talk at the outset of the fighting in July, the officials said, Jerusalem is now interested in finding an acceptable way to negotiate the men's freedom.
One possibility being explored, they said, was naming a United Nations special envoy to conduct the transaction.
In Stockholm, where he was attending a donors' conference for Lebanon, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said that a prisoner swap with Israel was being considered by his government but that "nothing has materialized."
"I hope the Israeli government will respond to the call of reason so that we can finish with this and everybody will return to his home," he said.
The UN officials asserted that the Israelis were more flexible on the timing of the final troop withdrawal from Lebanon than was indicated by Olmert's public rebuff on Wednesday of Annan's request that the troops should depart once the planned 15,000-person international force reached a complement of 5,000.
In Rome on Thursday, Romano Prodi, Italy's prime minister, told reporters that Shimon Peres, the Israeli deputy prime minister, whom Annan met with Wednesday, had told him there was support for the idea in Jerusalem.
"Shimon Peres confirmed to me that, with the arrival of 5,000 members of the UN force in southern Lebanon, Israeli forces will start to withdraw," Prodi said, according to news agencies.
The Israeli Army said Thursday that it had handed over more than two- thirds of the territory it captured in southern Lebanon to United Nations troops and Lebanese forces since the truce with Hezbollah took effect.
The army refuses to discuss troop numbers, but Israel's Maariv newspaper estimated that up to 10,000, down from the 30,000 that were there at the height of the war, remained in Lebanon.
[The Israeli Army turned over control of a border area in southern Lebanon to Lebanese and international troops, a symbolic move meant to pave the way for a beefed-up UN force, The Associated Press quoted Israeli military officials as saying Thursday.
[The army started its withdrawal Wednesday, pulling back from a small area of the border near the Israeli town of Metulla, putting Lebanese and international troops in control of a section of the border for the first time in two decades, the army said, The AP reported. Lebanese officials said the army sent reconnaissance teams to the area Thursday and they had just begun deploying troops there.]
Annan met Thursday with King Abdullah II of Jordan at a convention center on the Dead Sea and said afterward that Israel's seven-week-old sea, air and land blockade of Lebanon should end.
"It is important that it is lifted and not be seen as collective punishment of the Lebanese people," he said.
Siniora said reconstruction efforts would be severely undermined if Israel did not end the blockade, and many delegates at the donor's conference in Sweden, with the notable exception of the United States, agreed.