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Annan faults Israel and Hezbollah

Calls for lifting of blockade, freeing soldiers

BEIRUT -- UN Secretary General Kofi Annan faulted Israel and Hezbollah yesterday for not living up to key sections of the cease-fire resolution, while two more countries took steps to provide troops for an expanded peacekeeping force to secure the truce.

Sitting beside Prime Minister Fuad Saniora of Lebanon, Annan demanded Hezbollah return two captured Israeli soldiers, whose July 12 abduction touched off the 34-day war, and said Israel must lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon.

Although Annan was critical of both sides, he also said the agreement provided a chance for a long-term peace. As the cease-fire held for the 15th day, neither side seemed eager to resume large-scale hostilities. But the UN chief cautioned the road ahead would be long.

Italy and Turkey moved yesterday to join the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, and Germany hinted it was negotiating a prisoner swap.

Annan, who later was booed by residents as he toured a bombed-out neighborhood in the Hezbollah stronghold of south Beirut, issued an unexpectedly blunt assessment of the cease-fire and its implementation by Israel and Hezbollah.

``It's a fixed menu. . . . It's not an a la carte menu where you choose and pick," he said at the end of the first day of his 11-day Mideast swing that will include stops in Iran and Syria, the main backers of Hezbollah.

Israel rejected Annan's call for an end to the blockade, which is intended to keep arms from being shipped to Hezbollah.

An official in the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the blockade will remain until the international force takes up positions along Lebanon's borders and entry points. He said Hezbollah continues to try to smuggle weapons into the country.

``Once the international forces are fully in place and they're able to prevent the smuggling of weapons to Hezbollah, there will be no need for the air and naval blockade," said the official, David Baker.

Annan has said the Lebanese Army could handle policing the Syrian border on its own and it would be unprecedented for a peacekeeping force to be deployed along a border shared by countries that have not been at war. President Bashar Assad of Syria has said the deployment of international troops would be considered a ``hostile" act.

Annan also said the UN force, which will grow to 15,000 soldiers, will not try to disarm Hezbollah guerrillas. That task is for the Lebanese government, which has sent 15,000 of its soldiers to the south, its borders with Syria border, and the Mediterranean coast, he said Sunday.

``Down the line . . . there will have to be disarmament, but it's up to the Lebanese government and people to resolve themselves," Annan said. ``The [peacekeepers] are not going to go house to house searching for weapons."

It was not known what Annan would discuss with the leaders of Syria and Iran, but it would be extremely difficult for Lebanon to disarm the Shi'ite guerrillas of Hezbollah without the agreement and participation of those two governments.

In Israel, Olmert announced an inquiry into the war, hoping to dispel criticism among Israelis that the army and government bungled the campaign. But he ignored demands for an independent inquiry with the authority to dismiss top officials.

His move was likely to enrage critics who say Olmert and other top officials should be the focus of the investigation, not overseeing it. Olmert said he accepted full responsibility for the government's decision to go to war.

Italy's Cabinet yesterday approved sending 2,500 soldiers to the peacekeeping mission, and the government approved a $38.4 million aid package for Lebanon.

Earlier, the Italian Defense Ministry said a naval task force was being assembled to move about 1,900 soldiers to Lebanon. They were to include marines and engineering specialists and be off the Lebanese coast by Friday.

Turkey, the only Muslim member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, took a step closer toward joining the peacekeeping force. Turkey has not said how many troops it could send, but the presence of Muslim soldiers in the force is regarded as crucial to gaining its acceptance in Lebanon.

Turkey's Cabinet called yesterday for sending troops to Lebanon, and said parliament would be convened soon to vote on the measure. The government holds a strong majority in parliament, but there is growing public opposition to the deployment of Turkish peacekeepers.

Israel has said a resolution of the conflict must include the release of the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah militants in a cross-border raid that triggered the conflict last month.

Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, was holding talks in Germany on efforts to get the soldiers released. Germany has mediated past prisoner exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel.

Annan said in Beirut that as a first step, the captured soldiers could be transferred to the government of Lebanon or a third party.

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