U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived Tuesday for talks with Israeli leaders after calling again for an end to their blockade of Lebanon and the release of two captured Israeli soldiers.
Annan’s visit is part of an 11-day tour through the region aimed at solidifying the cease-fire that ended the monthlong conflict between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
The United Nations chief, who arrived after touring war-battered southern Lebanon, met separately with Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the families of the two soldiers whose abduction by Hezbollah on July 12 triggered the fighting.
Annan is to meet today with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni before traveling to the West Bank for a session with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The blockade by land, sea and air is a “humiliation” for Lebanon, Annan said during his visit to the south. It was imposed soon after the outbreak of fighting and has choked the importation of goods and worsened the economic blow dealt by Israel’s withering bombing campaign.
Israeli officials say they would be willing to ease the blockade once an international peacekeeping force that is being assembled and mobilized is in position to halt the cross-border flow of weapons to Hezbollah from the militant group’s main backers, Syria and Iran. Annan also is to visit those two nations.
“The only reason we’re doing it is to stop the definite efforts by Syria and Iran to rearm Hezbollah,” said Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisen.
Eisen said Israeli leaders would press Annan for details on how the international force, envisioned to eventually involve as many as 15,000 troops, would help implement the U.N. resolution that brought an end to the fighting.
During his tour of southern Lebanon, Annan paid a visit to the headquarters of U.N. forces in the coastal town of Naqoura. He thanked the international troops there for sticking out the war under fire from both sides and said the expected reinforcements, mainly from Europe, would soon arrive in Lebanon.
“Their role is something misunderstood and criticized,” Annan said of the existing forces. “They are never given credit for the wonderful things they have done and the sacrifices they have made.” More than 250 troops and staff members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, have been killed since the force deployed in 1978.
Annan described the suffering endured by the UNIFIL troops during the Israeli bombing campaign. They survived on half a bottle of water a day, stopped taking showers and huddled in bunkers, he said.
In Jerusalem, Annan called anew for the release of the Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and again offered the help of the United Nations.
Goldwasser’s wife, Karnit, said afterward, “To everyone who said they want to help and everyone who said that [the two soldiers] need to return, I say, ‘I want to see actions.’ ”
In other developments, Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip said three Palestinians, including one identified as a Hamas militant, were killed by Israeli fire Tuesday in separate incidents amid an Israeli military operation on the edge of Gaza City.
In one of the incidents, the Israeli military said, a tank fired on two men believed to be carrying antitank missiles. The army said its troops were fired on by such weapons at least seven times Tuesday.
The army also said troops fired on a man planting an explosive device near soldiers. But Palestinian witnesses said the man, who was killed, was a civilian.
Ellingwood reported from Jerusalem and Stack from Beirut.