Annan Presses for Conciliation in Lebanon

Two weeks after a cease-fire was declared between Israel and Hezbollah, Israeli forces are continuing to impede sea and air transport to Lebanon. The blockade is one of the issues U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is discussing on his current Mideast tour.

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U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said in Beirut today that two captive Israeli soldiers should be released to the Red Cross. The July 12 seizure of the soldiers sparked a month long war between Israel and the Hezbollah militia. Annan also called on Israel to lift its six week blockade of Lebanon. But Israel said if its two soldiers are not freed, little will be resolved. The blockade is chocking an already frail Lebanese economy and crippling the livelihood of those who make their living from the Mediterranean Sea.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

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PETER KENYON reporting:

The sea is calm in the port town of Saida, down the coast from Beirut. It's a perfect day for fishing, except for the Israeli military blockade that's keeping Lebanon's fleet idle.

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KENYON: A knot of men crowd around a few boxes of small crab and even smaller fish. Twenty-seven-year-old fish buyer Mahmud Shiban(ph) eyes the catch hauled down in trucks from Tripoli. He's not impressed but he says this is how life is since the Israeli blockade began in July.

Mr. MAHMUD SHIBAN (Lebanese fisherman): (Speaking foreign language)

KENYON: Mahmud says it's a disaster. There are 400 fishermen in Saida alone and they've been sitting around doing nothing for 45 days in the middle of the season.

Mr. SHIBAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KENYON: Mahmud's father, Mohammad, walks by - a silver-haired man in a blue work shirt. He animatedly gestures toward the row of wooden boats sitting idle in the steamy August heat, the fine filament in the fishing nets rotting in the sun. Mohamad Shiban is 68 and says he's been fishing since he was 18. He learned from his father and a small boat, The Ibrahim, bears an inscription on its bow announcing that his grandson will inherit the boat someday.

Shiban says he was out with the fleet last month when the Israeli Navy showed up and told them to get off the water.

Mr. MOHAMAD SHIBAN (Lebanese fisherman): (Through translator) We were pulling our nets when we first saw them coming. They stopped us then searched everything on the boat. It was frightening. We're only humans so we were afraid. And since that day we haven't gone anywhere. And since the cease-fire, nothing's changed. Nobody's helping us. Our own government is doing nothing. We watch people coming in with aid and promises, but nothing for us.

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KENYON: Across the street from the harbor, a crowd of poor residents jostles for position in front of a Red Cross food aid station. Despite the aggressive lunging for the boxes of food staples, a woman standing nearby says the food situation here is quite a bit better than it was during the war. She says hunger isn't a serious problem now, although she's quick to add that in the villages to the south devastated by the Israeli bombardment, the situation is much worse.

Since the cease-fire, the original land, sea and air blockade has been eased slightly. Some commercial flights are landing in recent days. But some analysts say as painful as the Israeli blockade is now, things could still get worse. Ironically, the blockade has given Syria unexpected leverage in its fight to keep international troops away from its border with Lebanon.

Israel has demanded that the U.N. forces be deployed there to block the flow of arms to Hezbollah. But Syria threatened to close the border entirely if that happens. Since that would choke off Lebanon's last remaining route to the outside world, Transport Minister Mohamad Safadi says the Lebanese government instantly ruled out any foreign forces on that border.

Mr. MOHAMAD SAFADI (Transport Minister): We have from the beginning said we will not accept as the Lebanese government, so there was no need really for this, you know, controversy to be actually started by the Israelis.

KENYON: At his gas station in Saida, Mohammad Abdul Rafut(ph) says while the politicians argue he's operating in crisis mode. His station is open only about one day a week as gasoline supplies remain at just 5 to 10 percent of pre-war levels. The cost of importing gas from Syria has also skyrocketed. Like many Lebanese, Rafut sees his country as a pawn in larger conflicts involving the United States, Syria and Iran. He says whoever wins - Lebanon loses.

Mr. MOHAMMAD ABDUL RAFUT (Gas Station Owner): (Through translator) When it comes to the United States and Syria I know one thing. If they get along, Lebanon is condemned. And if they disagree, Lebanon is still condemned.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon NPR News, Beirut

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