DAMASCUS, (Reuters) – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan began talks with Syrian officials on Thursday to seek Syria’s help in bolstering a truce between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Before arriving in the Syrian capital Damascus, Annan renewed from Jordan his calls for Israel to lift its blockade of Lebanon swiftly and to withdraw fully from the country as soon as 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers are in the south.
“I expect — and I did make this clear to the Israeli authorities — that when the international forces have reached 5,000 and are deployed to the south with the Lebanese (army), it is time for them to withdraw and withdraw completely,” Annan told a news conference after talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah. He said in a radio interview he hoped the U.N. peacekeepers would be in place “within a week or 10 days”.
Annan met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Damascus later in the day. He is expected to hold talks with President Bashar al-Assad on Friday.
Syrian leaders have been angered by an Israeli demand for international troops to deploy on the Lebanese-Syrian border to stop arms smuggling to Hezbollah.
Lebanon, which has sent 8,600 soldiers to patrol the border, says it has no plans to ask U.N. troops to join them.
International donors pledged more than $940 million for near-term relief efforts for Lebanon, nearly double the target. “An amount exceeding $940 million has been pledged,” Swedish Foreign Minister Jan Eliasson told the conference.
The Swedish government, which hosted the meeting, had set a target of $500 million in pledges for Lebanon, which has said it suffered billions of dollars of damages.
“Lebanon, which only seven weeks ago was full of hope and promise, has been torn to shreds by destruction, displacement, dispossession, desolation, and death,” Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had told the conference.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, whose nation is set to be UNIFIL’s biggest contributor, said Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres had told him that Israel would begin pulling out its troops once 5,000 U.N. troops were in place.
But Peres spokesman Yoram Dori, commenting on Prodi’s remark, said: “Israeli troops will withdraw if the U.N. troops deploy in every place that ensures the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701.”
Israeli troops have been gradually withdrawing for the past two weeks and the army said it held less than a third of the land it occupied during the war. “The rest of the territory was handed over to UNIFIL and the Lebanese army,” a spokesman said.
Lebanese troops, accompanied by U.N. peacekeepers, took up posts on the border with Israel for the first time in decades.
A Reuters reporter saw soldiers in two armoured troop carriers and four trucks deploy in the frontier Majidiyeh village in the eastern sector of south Lebanon, a day after Israeli forces pulled out of the area.
Annan described Israel’s 7-week-old blockade of Lebanon is “unsustainable”, saying: “It is important that it is lifted and not be seen as collective punishment of the Lebanese people.”
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rebuffed Annan’s demands on Wednesday, saying Israel would keep the blockade and stay in Lebanon until all other terms of the U.N. resolution were met.
Israel says the sea and air embargo is designed to prevent Hezbollah from getting new arms supplies from Iran or Syria.
Picking up a proposal Annan made in Beirut, a senior Israeli political source said Israel would discuss freeing Lebanese prisoners for two soldiers captured by Hezbollah, if the two were handed over to the Beirut government. Israel has previously insisted on their unconditional release.
Israel launched the war after Hezbollah captured the two soldiers in a July 12 raid. The Shi’ite Muslim group offered at the outset to swap them for Lebanese prisoners.
Annan said he hoped to double very quickly the 2,500 U.N. peacekeepers already in south Lebanon, where the first big contingent of 800 Italian troops is due at the weekend.
The U.N. resolution envisages sending a force of up to 15,000 to south Lebanon by Nov. 4 to help a similar number of Lebanese troops police a weapons-free border zone.
German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung said he expected Germany to contribute more than 1,200 troops to the U.N. force.
The conflict cost the lives of nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
There has been no let up in violence in the Palestinian territories, largely overshadowed by the crisis in Lebanon.
In the occupied West Bank, Israeli troops killed a militant commander, while Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip renewed rocket strikes they had mostly suspended during the Lebanon war.