Security Council delays endorsing verification of Israeli pullout

UNITED NATIONS - The Security Council reached tentative agreement late Saturday to endorse a U.N. verification that Israel had completed its withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

A council statement, which was expected to be formally adopted early Sunday, came after the Lebanese government insisted that Israel still occupies part of its territory.

Hoping to overcome the differences, the council held a marathon 10-hour session Saturday, including a conference call with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others, U.N. sources said.

Earlier, diplomats said Russia - which has close ties to Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon - was under instructions to reject any text that did not satisfy the Lebanese government.

A day after Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss rejected the U.N. verification of Israel's pullout, he said Saturday that his government was committed to cooperating with the United Nations. But he reiterated that the country ''insists on recovering every inch of its territory.''

The 15-member council met Saturday morning, took a short break, and resumed consultations on the text of a statement endorsing Secretary-General Kofi Annan's announcement Friday that Israel had completely withdrawn from Lebanon.

Council members were under pressure from Annan, who left for the Middle East after Friday's announcement and wanted a Security Council endorsement of Israel's pullout before he arrives in Lebanon on Monday. Diplomats said the secretary-general reiterated the importance of an endorsement in a phone conversation Saturday with the current council president, France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-David Levitte.

A Security Council endorsement of Israel's withdrawal would put its political weight behind the U.N. position, rather than Lebanon's.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and occupied part of southern Lebanon as a buffer against guerrilla attacks on northern Israel from 1985 until its withdrawal on May 24.

Under 1978 Security Council resolutions, U.N. peacekeeping troops were charged with verifying any Israeli pullout.

Canada's deputy U.N. ambassador, Michel Duval said the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon had rechecked five or six positions and installations Saturday that the Lebanese government raised questions about ''and has confirmed the withdrawal.

''That is the basis on which we will work,'' Duval said. ''We don't contest the right of the Lebanese to make some verification, but this should not be an impediment for an endorsement of the report of the secretary-general.''

Lebanon's rejection of the U.N. announcement was a setback for Annan, who had hoped to discuss the next steps to achieve peace in the Middle East during his trip to the region.

The dispute over Israel's withdrawal has delayed the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops - and more critically the deployment of the Lebanese army to the region. The Lebanese army's presence is important because Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas who fought Israeli troops for years have moved into to fill the vacuum left by the departing Israelis.

The guerrilla presence in the zone right across from Israel's border is a major concern for residents of northern Israeli towns, who in the past have been the target of guerrilla rocket attacks. On Saturday, Hezbollah warned it would resume attacks on Israel's north if the Jewish state does not give up tracts of land claimed by Lebanon.

''All violations should be dealt with ... otherwise we consider the mission of liberating Lebanese territory to be incomplete and resistance remains our choice to liberate the last inch of our occupied land,'' Hezbollah said in a statement.

Timur Goksel, spokesman for the U.N. force in Lebanon, said Saturday that no peacekeepers would be deployed before matters were sorted out with the Lebanese government.

''It has been said all along that Lebanese consent is a prerequisite of U.N. deployment in any place in the country,'' he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office welcomed Annan's declaration, saying in a statement Saturday that it expected the United Nations to act to ''help restore law and order in the area.''


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