JERUSALEM,(Reuters) – Israel rejected a call from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon, saying it would only end the 7-week-old siege once all elements of a ceasefire were in place.
During an hour of talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Annan said he pressed for a lifting of the embargo, imposed after the start of the war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrilla group on July 12, mainly on economic grounds.
At a news conference after their meeting, Olmert rebuffed Annan, saying any relaxation of pressure on Lebanon’s ports and airspace depended on the full implementation of U.N. resolution 1701, which governs the ceasefire with Hezbollah.
“The (resolution) is a fixed buffet and everything will be implemented, including the lifting of the blockade, as part of the entire implementation of the different articles,” he said.
Olmert was equally firm when it came to suggestions from Annan that Israel should withdraw all its troops from southern Lebanon within “days or weeks”, once up to 5,000 U.N.-backed peacekeepers are on the ground.
“Israel will pull out of Lebanon once the resolution is implemented,” Olmert said, indicating a longer timeline.
In the talks, Olmert also reiterated his call for the U.N. force to be deployed not just in southern Lebanon but along the border with Syria, a deployment that the U.N. resolution makes dependent on a request from the Lebanese government.
Annan, in Jerusalem after visiting Lebanon, is trying to strengthen a shaky, two-week-old truce that ended a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah. His top priority had been the lifting of the blockade, a request made by Lebanon’s government.
“It is important not only because of the economic effect it is having on the country but it is also important to strengthen the democratic government of Lebanon with which Israel has repeatedly said it had no problems,” Annan said.
The secretary-general said he hoped to double to 5,000 the number of U.N. troops in Lebanon soon and urged Israel and Hezbollah to end swiftly disputes blocking a lasting ceasefire.
On Tuesday, Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said Israel would pull out thousands of troops once a “reasonable” number of U.N. soldiers had been deployed, but did not give a figure.
Resolution 1701 calls for a deployment of 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers by Nov. 4, alongside Lebanese army forces.
In a sign that Annan had made little progress in his discussions with Israeli leaders, he did not take questions from journalists after meeting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and neither was forthcoming about their hour-long talks.
Annan restricted himself to saying he hoped resolution 1701 could be the basis for a durable peace. Aides said he would travel to Syria and Iran, Hezbollah’s backers, later this week.
Annan said the Lebanese saw the blockade as a “humiliation and infringement of their sovereignty”. But he also urged Beirut to exert control over its borders to stop arms smuggling.
On a visit to southern Lebanon on Tuesday, Annan said “serious irritants” to the truce were also the fate of abducted Israeli soldiers and that of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel.
U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, on a visit to the region to try to mediate a prisoner exchange, told Israeli Army Radio he had been informed by a Hezbollah leader that the two soldiers seized by the guerrilla group were alive.
He said that during a visit to Damascus on Monday, “a Hamas leader told me … that the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas is alive”. Palestinian militants abducted Corporal Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid from Gaza in June.
Italy’s first contingent of 800 troops, out of an eventual 3,000 pledged, set sail on Tuesday on what Rome said would be a “long and risky” mission. The aircraft carrier Garibaldi and four other naval ships were due to reach Lebanon by Friday.
France promised to send a 900-strong battalion before the middle of September, with a second battalion to follow.
The United Nations hopes to create a buffer zone in south Lebanon free of Israeli or Hezbollah forces and policed by the expanded U.N. force alongside some 15,000 Lebanese troops.
It is hoping Muslim nations will send troops to balance the 7,000 or so pledged by European countries.
The Turkish government said it wanted parliament to meet on Sept. 5 to approve a troop contribution to the U.N. force, after agreeing in principle to send soldiers.
Other Muslim contributors could include Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, although Israel has objected to their taking part because they have no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
The war killed nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers.