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Lebanon rejects U.N. verification of Israeli troop pullout
June 18, 2000
UNITED NATIONS, (AP) - In a setback for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Lebanon rejected the United Nations' verification of Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon, saying Israel still controls some Lebanese territory.
Annan had said earlier Friday at U.N. headquarters that the United Nations has confirmed the Israeli withdrawal is complete.That announcement is supposed to clear the way for U.N. troops to move into the border area and help Lebanese forces restore peace and regain authority in the region.
"This is a happy day for Lebanon, but also for Israel," the secretary-general said. "It is a day of hope for the Middle East as a whole."
After his announcement and a report to the U.N. Security Council, he left to catch a flight to London en route to the Middle East "to see what the United Nations can do to consolidate and build on today's achievement."
Annan believed Lebanon had agreed to respect the world body's decision on when Israel had completed its withdrawal, said Annan's Mideast envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen.
A Lebanese statement and a telephone conversation Annan had with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud gave the secretary-general that impression, Roed-Larsen said.
But shortly after Annan spoke, Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss said Israel still controls some Lebanese soil.
"With deep regret, it appeared by Friday evening that Israel has not yet withdrawn from all Lebanese territory," Hoss said in Beirut.
He said Lebanese officers working with the U.N. team inspecting the Lebanese-Israeli border had found "there are still several Israeli military outposts inside the Lebanese border. And there are several tracts of Lebanese territory under Israeli control in a flagrant act of encroachment."
"I don't think that the secretariat-general of the United Nations would have announced the withdrawal had been completed ... had it been informed of these facts," Hoss said.
After Hoss' statement, Roed-Larsen called Lahoud and clarified some points the Lebanese team working with the U.N. force had raised, U.N. deputy spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said.
Members of the U.N. force and the Lebanese team were expected to meet Saturday to go over the points that had been raised, U.N. officials said.
A draft statement endorsing Annan's confirmation of Israel's withdrawal was circulated to Security Council members Friday. But diplomats said there was a disagreement on the text between France and the United States, and Russia and China needed time to consult their capitals. The council scheduled a meeting Saturday morning to discuss, and hopefully approve the text.
The Lebanese rejection is likely to delay deployment of the Lebanese army to southern Lebanon - a key U.N. goal.
Israel occupied part of southern Lebanon as a buffer against guerrilla attacks on northern Israel from 1985 until its withdrawal on May 24. After it withdrew, Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas who fought the Israeli occupation moved into the former occupied zone. The zone, which runs right up to the Israeli border, is now under the guerrillas' de facto control - a concern for Israel, where residents of northern towns fear guerrilla attacks.
Gadi Baltiansky, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, refused to comment on Annan's announcement. An official Israeli reaction will be made on Saturday night or Sunday, Baltiansky said.
Under resolutions the United Nations passed in 1978, U.N. officials were to verify any Israeli withdrawal. Then, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, now 4,500-strong, was to deploy to the border zone to assist the Lebanese government in maintaining peace and reasserting its authority.
Confirmation of Israel's withdrawal paves the way for that deployment and Roed-Larsen said they would start moving in immediately.
But the most important issue is the deployment of Lebanese troops to take control of the border region - and the Lebanese government has said it would not address that issue until the Israeli withdrawal was confirmed.
Hours before Annan spoke Friday, Lahoud warned that his government was opposed to the U.N.-demarcated frontier and would consider Israel's pullout to be incomplete.
Roed-Larsen said it was very difficult to identify a line that conforms to Lebanon's international boundaries and even more complicated to transform it from a map to a line on the ground - and then to verify that Israel had left all of Lebanon.
"Ninety percent - even more - of the problems we encountered on both sides were of a practical nature and not of a political nature," he said.
Roed-Larsen said Annan still wants the U.N. peacekeeping force to be increased to nearly 8,000 troops and expressed hope that Friday's announcement "will trigger a contribution of troops from relevant nations." The U.N. force will be increased to 5,600 next month, he said.
Annan was expected to visit seven countries in the Middle East region, beginning with Morocco on Saturday.
He then flies to Iran where he is scheduled to meet Sunday with top leaders before flying to Cairo. On Monday he flies to Beirut where he will meet Lahoud, Hoss and visit the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping force. Annan is scheduled to spend Tuesday in Jordan and Wednesday in Jerusalem.
On Thursday, he is expected to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and then head to Damascus where he will meet Bashar Assad, who is expected to follow in his late father's footsteps and become Syria's next leader.