U.N. chief meets Hezbollah leader in Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon - U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan shook hands Tuesday with the leader of Hezbollah, treating the group Washington views as a sponsor of international terrorism as a partner for peace on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

It was the first meeting between Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and a senior international official, and highlighted the fast-changing politics of the Middle East. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah spent nearly two decades locked in battle to drive Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, and now controls the territory Israel abandoned last month.

After the meeting, Nasrallah issued a warning that Hezbollah will renew attacks against Israel if it continues to occupy Lebanese soil.

The United Nations said Saturday that Israel had completely withdrawn from southern Lebanon under U.N. resolutions, which also call for the deployment of peacekeepers along the border. But Lebanon has accused Israel of continuing to occupy its territory.

The guerrillas ''will not wait for long for political efforts to resolve the violations and, as they have done in the past, will definitely work toward liberating every inch of occupied land,'' Nasrallah said in a statement after meeting Annan.

Annan promised to take up the issue when he meets with officials in Israel on Wednesday, and said he had instructed his peacekeepers to investigate alleged Israeli violations of the U.N.-drawn border.

''We take any violation very seriously and we will be vigilant in investigating each and every violation and ensure that they are corrected,'' Annan told reporters.

In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron declined to comment on the allegations of border violations, but said Israel hopes the U.N. chief ''will treat with the same seriousness'' the requirement that Lebanon deploy its armed forces in the south to ensure peace in line with U.N. resolutions.

Meanwhile, Israeli Likud party official Yuval Steinitz said the meeting between Annan and Nasrallah lent legitimacy to a group that should be considered a terrorist organization. Uri Savir of the moderate Center party, however, said the encounter could help ''to convince Hezbollah that they have to advance their goals by political means.''

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh declined to comment on the meeting.

The U.N. chief said he had a ''very good discussion'' with Nasrallah about the role of U.N. peacekeepers as well as the need for economic and social aid for south Lebanon. He said he and Nasrallah discussed cooperation between the government and ''non-state parties'' but did not refer to Hezbollah by name.

Lebanon is reluctant to send the army to the south before the U.N. peacekeepers deploy. Beirut has repeatedly said it does not want its soldiers to be Israel's border guards in the absence of a comprehensive peace settlement with Israel involving Lebanon and Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon.

Since the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah guerrillas have been treated like heroes in many parts of Lebanon and the Arab world. The casualties inflicted by Hezbollah on Israeli forces in southern Lebanon weakened Israel's resolve to sustain the 18-year occupation.

Hezbollah draws its support from the 1.2 million-member Shiite Muslim community, Lebanon's largest sect, and enjoys the financial backing of Iran and the crucial political endorsement of Syria.

But Hezbollah remains shunned by Western governments. In the 1980s, it was believed to be the umbrella group for militants who kidnapped Westerners and destroyed two U.S. Embassy compounds, the U.S. Marine headquarters at Beirut and a French military base. A total of about 290 Americans and about 60 French soldiers were killed. Hezbollah is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.


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