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Italy refuses to send troops until Israelis stop shooting; But Olmert says blockade will remain until UN force takes up border positions

Carolynne Wheeler, Globe & Mail, 23 Aug 06

 

JERUSALEM — With Italy warning it cannot send its soldiers to keep the peace in southern Lebanon if Israel "keeps shooting," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised his country's blockade on Lebanon will end as soon as a promised UN force takes positions along the border and at the airport.

 

"Olmert said deploying the force at border crossings to Syria and at the airport will allow the lifting of Israel's sea and air blockade and contribute to the implementation" of the ceasefire, according to a statement from Mr. Olmert's office after talks with United Nations envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to visit the region next week.

 

The statement followed a warning from Italian Foreign Minister Massimon D'Alema that he expects "a renewed effort" from Israel to respect the ceasefire, entering its 10th day today. The ceasefire is still largely intact despite continuing skirmishes on the ground and an Israeli raid into Baalbeck, Lebanon, on Saturday, but diplomats have warned it is still in a fragile state.

 

"From Israel we expect a renewed effort, this time truly binding, to respect the ceasefire," Mr. D'Alema told La Repubblica newspaper. "It's fair to expect that Hezbollah put down their weapons, but we cannot send our troops to Lebanon if the (Israeli) army keeps shooting."

 

Italy has been asked to lead the expanded force of up to 15,000 troops in southern Lebanon, and the country has indicated it will send up to 3,000 troops. The European Union's foreign ministers will meet Friday to discuss further contributions after a demand that only nations with diplomatic ties to Israel participate in the force.

 

Meanwhile, a senior UN envoy said yesterday efforts are continuing to secure the release of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah and Israel may be warming to the idea of trading Lebanese prisoners it holds in exchange.

 

Vijay Nambiar, Mr. Annan's special adviser, went to Israel after speaking with Lebanese leaders in Beirut. He said positions on the issue "may find some traction now."

 

Israel and Lebanon are still counting the toll taken by more than a month of fighting. In Lebanon, a senior UN official warned it could take a year or more to rid villages and fields of thousands of unexploded cluster bombs.

 

"Up to now there are 170 confirmed cluster bomb strikes in south Lebanon," Tekimiti Gilbert, operations chief of the country's UN Mine Action Co-ordination Centre, told Reuters. "It's a huge problem. There are obvious dangers with children, people, cars. People are tripping over these things."

 

The bomblets are known to have killed at least eight civilians as they returned home and injured at least 25 others, including several children. Six UN teams were finding 30 new cluster-bomb sites a day, Mr. Gilbert said.

 

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, in an interview with Venezuelan television, warned that the damage from Israel's air strikes and ground operations could exceed the equivalent of $5-billion (U.S.). Earlier estimates had put the figure at $3.5-billion. He also said the death toll has reached 1,600 and was expected to rise.

 

In Israel, the Defence Ministry confirmed it has suspended a committee investigating the war pending a decision on a higher-level inquiry.

 

Mr. Olmert's government suffered a further blow when a vote on the budget, needed to set aside the equivalent of nearly $460-million (U.S.) to pay for the war and damage to Israel's north, was delayed by Labour members of the Knesset who believe the budget cuts dig too deeply into social programs.

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