U.N. chief praises Hezbollah, predicts border dispute resolution

JERUSALEM - With Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak smiling tightly by his side, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday defended his meeting with a Hezbollah chieftain, the first ever between a top international official and a leader of the Shiite Muslim group.

Annan's groundbreaking parley with Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah on Tuesday was yet another sign of how some longstanding Middle East realities were abruptly rearranged by Israel's troop pullout last month from south Lebanon.

And so was Israel's decision to refrain from kicking up a fuss about the meeting when Annan arrived in Jerusalem a day later.

Neither Barak nor his foreign minister, David Levy, breathed a word of public criticism about the secretary-general's discussions with Nasrallah - an encounter that would have been unthinkable during the nearly two decades when Hezbollah's guerrillas fought to drive Israeli troops from south Lebanon.

For all the show of public politeness, however, Israel radio reported a sometimes tense atmosphere in Barak's closed-door talks with Annan. It said the U.N. chief backed Lebanese claims that Israel is in violation of some parts of the newly redrawn border between the two nations.

Hezbollah is now the de facto authority in the former occupied zone - as Annan matter-of-factly acknowledged at a joint news conference with Barak. And that, he said, was good enough reason to include the group in talks about south Lebanon's future.

''Hezbollah has been, and is, a player in the south of Lebanon,'' Annan said as the Israeli leader looked on. The U.N. chief added that Hezbollah fighters had exercised ''restraint, responsibility and discipline after the (Israeli) withdrawal.''

Barak said nothing about the meeting, but some in his government expressed hopes it would encourage Hezbollah to continue enforcing the uneasy calm that has prevailed in the south since Israel's withdrawal.

''In my opinion the meeting...is to be welcomed,'' said dovish Justice Minister Yossi Beilin.

The prime minister, meanwhile, took the opportunity to underscore Israel's view that Syria - now undergoing a leadership transition in the wake of President Hafez Assad's death on June 10 - bears the responsibility for keeping a tight lid on Hezbollah.

Asked whether Annan should deliver any message to Bashar Assad, son of the late president and his near-certain successor, Barak spoke of past ''Syrian activities, terror activities with proxies,'' in south Lebanon.

Israel radio said Barak warned Annan that if an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force does not soon deploy throughout the former Israeli-occupied zone, ''hostile elements'' might take advantage of the power vacuum and bring about bloodshed. As well as urging a full U.N. deployment, Israel is eager to see Lebanese army troops policing the south.

Annan pointed to a decision by Lebanon's government, announced last week, to send in 1,000 men. However, Lebanese officials say the plainclothes security force will not deploy all the way to the border.

Annan also told reporters he had received indications from Hezbollah that it would continue to act with restraint - even though the group said publicly after the meeting that attacks against Israel would resume if border disputes are not resolved.

The Security Council verified last week that the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon has ended, but Lebanon says Israel still occupies a few patches of its territory.

Annan, who is touring the Mideast to supervise the implementation of the 1978 U.N. resolution demanding Israel's pullout, predicted a speedy settlement of the border disputes, as did Barak.

''We are going to clarify (the issues) in the next 24 hours, I hope, or maybe 36 hours, but basically we are determined to follow on with the implementation,'' the Israeli leader said.

On Wednesday, a six-person team of Lebanese military mapmakers finished resurveying the border in the company of U.N. officials, a Lebanese army cartographer said. In their last inspection, the Lebanese and U.N. officials went to Kfar Chouba and Majidiyeh, two border villages on the foothills of Mount Hermon.

The mapmakers registered 17 instances of Israeli encroachment on Lebanese territory, according to the cartographer, who spoke on condition he not be identified by name.

While largely quiet, south Lebanon still holds dangers. A Lebanese man died in a land mine explosion near a former Israeli outpost outside the port city of Sidon, Lebanese officials said - the fourth Lebanese civilian killed by mines since Israel's May 24 withdrawal.


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