Lebanese officials reject Israeli calls for peace talks

n International peacekeepers

begin to monitor latest truce.

BY ALFRED DE MONTESQUIOU

The Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Italian soldiers moved into southern Lebanon in trucks and armored vehicles Sunday as the first big wave of international peacekeepers took up positions to monitor a shaky truce between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas. Lebanese officials scoffed at an Israeli call for peace talks.

Israeli security officials said they expect the army to be out of Lebanese territory within the next two weeks, when they decide whether sufficient U.N. forces have arrived in south Lebanon to enforce the truce.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, did not specify when Israel would plan to lift its air and sea blockade. Israel says it has to maintain the blockade to prevent Iran and Syria from providing more weapons and rockets to Hezbollah guerrillas.

The timetable for a pullout coincided with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s call for peace talks.

“How natural, how understandable it would be for the prime minister of Lebanon to respond to the many calls I have made toward him and say, Come on, let’s sit, shake hands, make peace and end once and for all the hostility, the jealousy, the hatred that some of my people have toward you,'” Olmert said while touring a school in northern Israel.

“I hope this day comes soon. I yearn for it,” said Olmert.

Angry reaction

Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi responded angrily and quickly.

“Let him dream on. He will never see the day,” Aridi said. “Before he talks about peace, he is required to withdraw his troops from Lebanon and lift the blockade.”

“Olmert must know that Lebanon will never negotiate with Israel or with him,” he told The Associated Press. There is “absolutely no trust between Lebanon and Israel.”

“Why should we negotiate with them?” said the information minister. “Israel will not get through peace what it failed to get in war.”

His words echoed a widespread Lebanese sentiment that Hezbollah’s fierce resistance during the 34-day war was a victory for the group.

Last week, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora also rejected the idea of talks with the Jewish state, saying that Lebanon would “be the last Arab country that could sign a peace agreement with Israel.”

His office issued a statement Sunday restating that position.

The government “is not prepared to listen to such things. Such invitations are rejected before they even happen,” it said.

After weeks of delays since the Aug. 14 truce between Israel and Hezbollah took effect, the strengthened U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, has finally begun to take shape. But it could take months for it to reach its full strength of 15,000.

Under the cease-fire plan, 15,000 Lebanese soldiers were also to be deployed to assert control over the Hezbollah stronghold south of the Litani River and to prevent arms from reaching the guerrillas.

The first large batch of peacekeepers arrived in Lebanon on Sunday, with soldiers and marines from two Italian regiments reaching their bases in the south of the country.

An AP photographer saw a few children cheering or waving Italian flags as the long convoy of soldiers made its way to a base in Kalaway, near the southern port city of Tyre.

About 860 troops have arrived, the Italian Defense Ministry said in a statement. The ministry said the troops would not be further deployed until later this week.

The French army said that about 200 troops and 100 vehicles loading onto ships along France’s Mediterranean coast and would reach Lebanon by the end of the week.

The Italians will bring the total number of U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon to 3,250 – including the 2,000 UNIFIL troops who were already in place and 250 French soldiers who arrived last week.

Israel raced to destroy Hezbollah arms caches ahead of its impending withdrawal.

French Gen. Alain Pellegrini, who commands UNIFIL, confirmed Israel has been destroying Hezbollah arms in territories it still occupies in the south. The Israeli military said it had demolished an unspecified number of Hezbollah bunkers.

Pellegrini said such actions violated the truce, as do reconnaissance missions by Israeli jets and drones over Lebanese air space.

“The cease-fire is holding for the moment … but it’s fragile,” Pellegrini said.

The U.N. cease-fire resolution calls for Hezbollah to eventually be disarmed, but does not direct peacekeepers to take on that task.

Instead, the force will ensure a buffer zone along the Israeli-Lebanese border is free of Hezbollah fighters and arms up to the Litani River, 18 miles to the north.

At the same time, Lebanese troops are supposed to prevent new weapons shipments to Hezbollah from Syria, a Hezbollah ally.

Israel’s devastating offensive on Lebanon was triggered when Hezbollah guerrillas seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12.

More than 850 Lebanese and 150 Israelis died in the conflict.

A 55-year-old Lebanese man was killed Sunday by a cluster bomb left from an Israeli airstrike in the village of Kfar Sir near the Litani River.