(photo credit: AP [file])
A top US official urged Israel to turn over more information about land mines in southern Lebanon, as the Obama administration allocated more money to help locate and defuse mines and unspent cluster bombs Tuesday.
In an appearance before Congress, Jeffrey Feltman, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, also defended the administration's decision to engage with Damascus at the same time that he took a hard line against Hizbullah and said no deal with Syria would come at Lebanon's defense.
"We have always encouraged the Israelis to share all of their site data with the UN," Feltman said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East. Noting that Israel had already shared some information with the UN as part of its withdrawal from Lebanon after 2006's Second Lebanon War, Feltman said he was "encouraged" by signs from the UN that Jerusalem might be preparing to offer further site data.
Feltman's appearance in Congress came the same day the State Department announced it had granted an addition $1.5 million to the Mines Advisory Group to help remove cluster bombs and mines in southern Lebanon, bringing the total US contribution to the effort to $15.5m.
The day before, the Lebanese army received a shipment of American military vehicles as part of a previous aid agreement, according to The Daily Star of Beirut. The paper also reported that the Lebanese army would receive the small, unmanned RQ-11 Raven, a short-range UAV, to help it boost border control and fight terrorism.
The moves come as the US faces criticism that its engagement with Syria - including Feltman's own trip to Damascus earlier this month with another senior White House adviser - could weaken the position of Lebanese pushing for independence and democracy even as Syria tries to tighten its control in a country it unwillingly withdrew from three years ago.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) worried that talking to Syria's leaders without them having acted to stop support for Hamas or Hizbullah would only embolden them.
"I would hope that any contact that we have with Syria does not make the same mistake of having a communication that seems to verify the legitimacy of the tough guys we're talking to," he warned.
Feltman, though, defended recent engagement efforts with Syria, calling the decision to talk to Damascus a change in tactics but not policy. The Obama administration, he said, continued to share the Bush administration concerns about Syria's support of Hamas and Hizbullah, saying the new approach was simply an attempt to get to the same goal by different means.
He declined, however, to list any preconditions for high-level talks with Syria, even as Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) urged him to do just that.
But Feltman did maintain that while the administration was encouraging outreach to Syria, and Israel's indirect talks with Damascus, "No deal will be made at Lebanon's expense."
And though the UK recently decided to hold contacts with the elements of Hizbullah that sit in the Lebanese parliament, Feltman stressed, "We see no distinction in the leadership and funding of the group's terror, military, political and social wings."
The Media Line News Agency contributed to this report.
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