Annan Works Both Sides of Hezbollah-Israel Conflict

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U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is visiting eight countries to try to shore up the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. He is trying to get Israel to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon, but Israeli officials say they won't lift the blockade until U.N. forces are deployed.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. The United Nations secretary-general has assignments for both Israel and Hezbollah. Kofi Annan says he thinks two captured Israeli soldiers are still alive, and he wants Hezbollah to release the men whose abduction came at the start of this summer's war. Annan also wants Israeli forces to continue their withdrawal from southern Lebanon, and he wants an end to Israel's blockade of Lebanon. That is something that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not want to do until he is ensured that weapons will stop flowing to Hezbollah.

NPR's Linda Gradstein is in Jerusalem.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Israel is just one of eight countries Kofi Annan is visiting to shore up a two and a half week old ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah. Speaking at a news conference with Prime Minister Olmert, Annan says he wants to speed up deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in south Lebanon.

Mr. KOFI ANNAN (U.N. Secretary-General): We have about 2,500 troops on the ground now, and we're going to try and double that number and get to 5,000 in the coming days and weeks. And I hope that as we do that, the Israeli withdrawal will continue. And by the time we are at the level, Israel will have fully withdrawn and we will have an effective, credible force on the ground.

GRADSTEIN: Annan also urged Israel to lift its six-week-old blockade of Lebanon, saying that would help strengthen the democratic government there. He said he believes the Lebanese government will be able to stop Syria and Iran from rearming Hezbollah.

Mr. ANNAN: And I think we need to be able to take care of the concerns of Israel, and I understand the issue of rearmament that we need to make sure that arms do not come in either through the airports and the borders or through the seaports. And I can assure you that in my discussions with the Lebanese authorities they are taking this issue seriously and they are taking measures to deal with it, and the international communities should work with them. But in the meantime, I do believe that the blockades should be lifted.

GRADSTEIN: Olmert did not respond to Annan's demand directly, merely saying that all elements of the cease-fire must be implemented. Olmert also said Israel is committed to the cease-fire as laid out in United Nations' Resolution 1701.

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Israel): The most important aspect of implementing Resolution 1701 is the unconditional release of the abducted Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. As long as this objective is not achieved, Resolution 1701 cannot be considered as fully implemented.

GRADSTEIN: Annan said he believes the captured Israeli soldiers are still alive. He said the first thing he did when he arrived in Israel was to meet their families.

Mr. ANNAN: I'm a father. I am also a brother, a husband, and listening to their stories, I could feel their pain and the desire for them to have their loved ones back. And I have indicated to them that we will do all that we can to work to get them back.

GRADSTEIN: Annan also meets today with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, and visits Syria and Iran later this week.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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