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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Ban warns Lebanese about arms smuggling from Syria

Arms smuggling from Syria to Lebanon is like those unmentionable bodily functions. Everyone knows it happens, but almost nobody will talk about it. As for doing something about it, it seems to have become an elemental force in the Middle East, like barchash flies and Hamsin weather, that is not to be defied.

UN chief: Arms smuggling threatening cease-fire
The UN chief warned Saturday that arms smuggling from Syria could threaten the cease-fire in Lebanon and urged full compliance with a UN resolution that ended the summer war between Hezbollah and Israel.

UN Resolution 1701 which halted the 34 days of fighting calls among other things for a stop in arms shipments to Hizbullah guerrillas and demands the "unconditional release" of two Israeli soldiers the militants captured, triggering the conflict.

Noting allegations that the arms embargo on Hizbullah was not being enforced, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met Friday with Lebanese security chiefs during his two-day visit to Lebanon to discuss ways of enhancing the Lebanese army's monitoring capabilities of the along border with Syria, one of Hizbullah's principal patrons.

The leading Lebanese daily An-Nahar reported Saturday that Ban told the Lebanese security chiefs that Israel had provided him with "evidence and pictures" of trucks crossing from Syria to Lebanon and unloading weapons.

On Saturday, Ban again voiced concern about the reported arms smuggling.

"There are intelligence reports that arms are smuggled. I am concerned by that kind of arms smuggling, which will destabilize the situation in Lebanon," he told reporters during a stop at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.

Ban urged all sides to obey the UN resolution and expressed the need for "an enhanced monitoring capacity of the Lebanese armed forces to ensure that there will be no such smuggling activity."

Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Ban during a stop in Israel in March that the UN-brokered cease-fire in southern Lebanon is endangered by Hizbullah militants. He accused the Iranian- and Syrian-backed guerrillas of continuing to receive arms shipments from Syria.

Lebanese leaders have rejected Israeli claims that weapons smuggling continues.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who is opposed to Hizbullah and Syrian influence, said at a news conference with Ban in Beirut on Friday that the Lebanese government was trying to improve its monitoring capabilities but stressed that "not one single case of arms smuggling across the border" with Syria has been recorded.

His defense minister, Elias Murr, recently said that not a "single mosquito" is getting across the border, adding that Hizbullah did not need to resupply. On Friday, the defense minister again dismissed reports of arms smuggling through Syria as "not true."

But Hizbullah has boasted that it replenished its stockpile of rockets after the war.

Israeli warplanes have continued to fly reconnaissance missions over Lebanon though Beirut and the United Nations consider them a violation of the cease-fire and have demanded Israel stop the overflights. Israel has refused, saying they are vital intelligence-gathering missions. But an internal Israeli military document has said the flights are intended in part to pressure the international community to stop arms smuggling to Hizbullah guerrillas and release the two abducted Israeli soldiers.

The UN chief arrived Thursday in Beirut from Saudi Arabia, where he attended an Arab summit. His Mideast tour has already taken him to Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

On Friday, Ban also expressed disappointment that there had been no progress toward the release of two Israeli soldiers whose capture during a cross-border raid triggered the fighting.

Hizbullah has not provided any information about the conditions of the two soldiers seized on July 12 and has insisted they would be released only through a prisoner exchange with Israel.

Ban also traveled by helicopter to southern Lebanon near the Israeli border to thank the peacekeepers from 30 countries who are monitoring the cease-fire. He was briefed by senior commanders at the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon at the Lebanese coastal border town of Naqoura. He later flew by helicopter over the Blue Line, the UN-demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel, and made stops at several of the force's bases before departing for New York.

"This is an occasion for me to express my gratitude in person to all of you," he said during a ceremony at the headquarters. He also paid homage to those who "paid the ultimate sacrifice" and those who were injured during the 29-year-old mission in southern Lebanon.

UNIFIL first deployed in Lebanon in 1978 after an Israeli invasion but has been ineffective over the years. The fighting between Hizbullah and Israel last summer killed more than 1,000 in Lebanon and 159 Israelis.

The cease-fire resolution called for a reinforced UNIFIL, which now numbers close to 13,000. It currently patrols a weapons-free zone alongside some 15,000 Lebanese troops.

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