JERUSALEM (AP) -U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday called Israel’s air and sea blockade of Lebanon a “humiliation,” while Israel said it won’t end the embargo until peacekeeping forces on the border can prevent Hezbollah guerrillas from importing new weapons.
Annan arrived in Israel after visiting U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon who will play a key role in maintaining the fragile truce that ended 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
His 11-day Mideast tour also will take him to Syria and Iran — Hezbollah’s main benefactors.
Annan’s visits to Lebanon and Israel came a day after Italy and Turkey moved to join the international force in southern Lebanon. He was to meet later with the families of two soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah on July 12 sparked the fighting.
“We need to resolve the issue of the abducted soldiers very quickly,” Annan said during his visit to Naqoura in south Lebanon. “We need to deal with the lifting of the embargo — sea, land and air — which for the Lebanese is a humiliation and an infringement on their sovereignty.”
Israel wants international forces to help patrol the Lebanon-Syria border to stop the arms flow. Lebanon has said its troops would be able to secure the border on their own.
“Israel will be happy to stop the sea and aerial blockade if we felt that the land crossings would not be the main smuggling routes,” said Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisen. “Israel is certain that if there is no serious force to stop (smuggling), both Syria and Iran will continue to back, fund and arm Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Eisen said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is to meet with Annan on Wednesday, would also call for “the unconditional return of our captives in Lebanon.”
The families of the two captured soldiers said they hoped Annan would be able to help mediate for the release of the men, who have not been heard from since their capture.
“(Hezbollah) must first of all give us a sign of life. (Annan) must act toward that. It’s a moral demand that’s basic in any negotiations,” said Eldad Regev’s brother, Benny.
Annan earlier visited U.N. peacekeepers in Naqoura, about 2 1/2 miles north of the Israeli border, and the base for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL.
Annan was briefed by French Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, the UNIFIL commander, and other top officials, then reviewed an honor guard of U.N. troops in blue berets standing at attention on the green lawn inside the U.N.’s white-walled compound.
He laid a wreath at a monument for peacekeepers killed in Lebanon since UNIFIL deployed here in 1978. Muslim and Christian clergymen said prayers, and the U.N. chief stood in silence in front of a display of portraits of those killed, including four UNIFIL members killed in an Israeli airstrike on their base in Khiam on July 25.
The U.N. chief shook hands with members of the 2,000-member force, which is being expanded to 15,000 under the U.N. resolution that halted fighting between Israel and Hezbollah on Aug. 14. Flags of countries contributing troops to UNIFIL, including Annan’s native Ghana, fluttered in the breeze as the band played their national anthems.
Annan told the troops “we are trying to get in the additional reinforcements as quickly as we can.”
In Copenhagen, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said “time will tell who is the winner” of the 34-day conflict, and she said Hezbollah had been weakened by the fighting.
“Hezbollah has to give some explanation to the Lebanese people,” she said. “They suffered for nothing.”
After talks with Lebanese leaders in Beirut, Annan faulted both Israel and Hezbollah for not living up to key sections of the cease-fire resolution, and warned that fighting could resume if the parties did not abide by the full resolution.
“Without the full implementation of resolution 1701, I fear the risk is great for renewal of hostilities,” he said.
He also toured a bombed-out neighborhood in the Hezbollah stronghold of south Beirut, where hundreds of residents booed him as he toured the ruins Monday.
Annan said he found the destruction in south Lebanon “quite shocking,” and said he could “understand the anger and frustration of some of those who had lived there.”
“But what happened yesterday was really a little sideshow put on to impress me, and I think some of the young ones got a bit overzealous,” he said in reference to the booing.
The U.N. refugee agency said thousands of Lebanese have been unable to return to their homes two weeks after the cease-fire took hold because they feel too insecure or their residences were destroyed.
“I think until the cease-fire is completely stable and the forces are in place there, many of those people would be reluctant to go back,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Jack Redden.
Meanwhile, an Italian task force, led by the country’s only aircraft carrier, the Giuseppe Garibaldi, sailed from southern Italy for Lebanon. Three landing platform dock ships also left the port of Brindisi, and a small frigate already in Cyprus was scheduled to join the Italian mission, the Defense Ministry said.
Italy on Monday approved sending 2,500 troops, the largest national contingent so far. The plan now goes to Parliament for approval, but the ships were to set sail ahead of the vote and reach Lebanon on Friday.
“We will follow you with trepidation because it is a delicate mission of huge historic significance,” Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi told about 1,000 soldiers bound for U.N. peacekeeping duties. “But we will also follow you with pride and trust, knowing that although you carry arms, you’re going to Lebanon exclusively to bring peace.”
Some of the crew shared the mixed feelings.
“This mission came all of a sudden,” said Sgt. Gaspare Scavone, 33, on his first mission abroad. “We’re still in the dark as to what we will have to do once we’re in the area.”
Spain’s Defense Ministry said a marine unit was ordered to prepare for deployment to Lebanon to join the U.N. peacekeeping force. The ministry would not disclose the number of troops but Spain’s Socialist government reportedly is considering sending between 700 and 1,000. The government is expected to approve the deployment at a Cabinet meeting Friday and then must seek Parliament’s approval.
A battalion of 900 French soldiers will arrive in Lebanon in mid-September to help boost the peacekeeping force, the Defense Ministry said. France now has about 400 soldiers in the force and plans to expand that number to 2,000.
On Monday, Turkey’s Cabinet decided in favor of sending peacekeepers and its parliament was to debate the deployment later this week or early next week, said Turkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek.
Turkey ruled Lebanon for some 400 years during the Ottoman Empire and many Turkish officials want their country to have a say in an area that they regard as their country’s backyard.
The United States, the European Union and Israel were pressing Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO and a country with close ties to Israel and Arab countries, to send peacekeepers.