United Nations chief Kofi Annan has called for the release of two Israeli soldiers whose capture sparked the war with Lebanon. In Beirut on the first leg of a Middle East tour, the Secretary-General also urged Israel to lift its embargo on Lebanon. He added he would ask Damascus to set up diplomatic ties with Beirut and police its side of the border against arms smuggling, a main bone of contention with Israel.
Discussions also centred on the deployment of a 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in the south of the country. “It is time now to look to the future. Let us look at this post-war period as an opportunity for peace, prosperity and stability in Lebanon,” said Annan.
His visit comes a day after Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah watered down his rhetoric by saying he backed the Lebanese army’s deployment in the south, adding that his armed fighters would leave the area.
It is unlikely such statements could have been made just a few months ago and they have taken immediate effect on the ground. Hizbollah fighters have evacuated more than a dozen positions in the disputed Shebaa Farms area which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Israel’s withdrawal from the small mountainous territory which borders Lebanon and Syria is one of Hizbollah’s central demands.