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Israel Pegs Its Pullout to Release of Captives

Times Staff Writer

Israel signaled Wednesday that it would not lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon or withdraw the rest of its troops until two Israeli soldiers seized by Hezbollah were freed.

Meanwhile, violence flared in the Gaza Strip, where at least eight Palestinians, four of them gunmen, were killed in confrontations with Israeli troops. The 9-week-old Israeli offensive in Gaza has left nearly 250 Palestinians dead.

Some of that fighting overlapped with Israel’s 34-day conflict with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, which ended with a cease-fire Aug. 14. However, the two sides are balking at fulfilling some of the truce’s main provisions.

Visiting U.N. SecretaryGeneral Kofi Annan, who met Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, called for an immediate easing of Israel’s embargo and a withdrawal of troops once about one-third of a promised 15,000-member international force has been deployed in southern Lebanon.

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Olmert responded by saying the U.N. cease-fire resolution must first be fully implemented. His office said later that Israel would not consider the terms of the resolution to have been met until the two captured servicemen were freed.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Annan, Olmert called the resolution a “fixed buffet.”

“Everything will be implemented, including the lifting of the blockade, as part of the entire implementation of the different articles,” he said.

Annan and Olmert also were apparently unable to reach agreement on whether the Syrian border, which has been a prime conduit for the shipment of arms to the Hezbollah militia, will be policed by the international force or the Lebanese army.

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Lebanon has said its army will patrol the frontier, but Israel demands that the international force deploy there to prevent a renewed flow of weaponry to the Shiite Muslim militants.

“We need to be flexible, because I don’t think there’s ever only one way of solving a problem,” Annan said at the news conference.

“We shouldn’t insist that the only way to do it is by deploying international forces,” he said.

Even though little progress was apparent in his talks with the Israeli leader, Annan sought to play down their disagreements.

“There isn’t that much of a difference [of opinion] between Prime Minister Olmert and myself,” Annan later told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Both Annan and Olmert expressed hopes for a comprehensive peace accord between Lebanon and Israel.

Olmert said the cease-fire could serve as the “cornerstone to build a new reality between Israel and Lebanon.” But in Lebanon, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said his country would be “the last Arab country that could sign a peace agreement with Israel.”

Israel held the Lebanese government responsible for the July 12 cross-border raid by Hezbollah in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two were captured, triggering the fighting.

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Further dampening hopes for a break in the impasse over the two captives, a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese Cabinet said they would be freed only as part of a prisoner exchange. “There will be no unconditional release. This is not possible,” Energy Minister Mohammed Fneish, a Hezbollah member, told the Associated Press.

Annan said an easing of Israel’s blockade would help strengthen Lebanon’s government and allow the start of a recovery from the destruction wrought during the conflict.

“I do believe the blockade should be lifted,” the U.N. chief said.

In his talks with Abbas, Annan called on Israel to open crossing points into the Gaza Strip, which even before the recent outbreak of fighting was largely isolated. Israel says it has been forced to sharply limit the passage of people and goods in and out of Gaza because of security threats.

Underscoring that, the Israeli military said Wednesday that troops had discovered a tunnel, about 150 yards long, that stretched from the outskirts of Gaza City toward the main Karni commercial crossing. They said it apparently was built by Palestinian militants to be used for weapons smuggling or attacks on Israeli troops.

Karni, which has been the target of repeated attacks by militant groups, has been closed for much of this year. Israel has agreed to weigh a U.S. proposal to station international observers there to bolster security so the crossing can be open more often.

Times staff writer Megan K. Stack in Beirut and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.


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