The UN chief on Saturday visited with peacekeepers in southern Lebanon near the Israeli border to thank the men and women from 30 countries who are monitoring a cease-fire after a devastating war last summer between Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas. Ban Ki-moon flew by helicopter from Beirut to the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon at the Lebanese coastal border town of Naqoura, where he was briefed by senior commanders. He was expected to fly over the Blue Line, the UN-demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel, and make stops at several of the force's bases before flying to New York, ending a Mideast tour.
UN chief meets rival Lebanese leaders
"This is an occasion for me to express my gratitude in person to all of you," he said during a ceremony at the headquarters. "This visit will allow me to see the challenging environment in which you live and work," he added, paying homage to those who "paid the ultimate sacrifice" and those who were injured during the 29-year-old mission in southern Lebanon.
UNIFIL first deployed in Lebanon in 1978 after an Israeli invasion. But the force has not been able to stop guerrilla attacks on Israel or subsequent Israeli incursions into Lebanon, such as Israel's 1982 invasion. The fighting between Hizbullah and Israel last summer, which killed more than 1,000 in Lebanon and 159 Israelis, was halted by a UN-brokered cease-fire that called for reinforcing UNIFIL to help Lebanese troops patrol the region.
The reinforced UNIFIL, now numbering close to 13,000 from 30 countries, began taking up positions in August. It currently patrols a weapons-free zone alongside some 15,000 Lebanese troops.
The UN chief arrived Thursday in Beirut from Saudi Arabia, where he attended an Arab summit. His Mideast tour has already taken him to Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
In Beirut Friday after meeting Lebanon's prime minister, he called for the full implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended last summer's war between Hizbullah and Israel, expressing disappointment that there has been no progress toward the release of two Israeli soldiers whose capture by the guerrillas triggered the conflict.
Hizbullah has not provided any information about the conditions of the two Israeli soldiers seized in a cross-border raid on July 12. Hizbullah has insisted the soldiers would be released only through a prisoner exchange with Israel.
The resolution calls for a halt in arms shipments to Hizbullah, and demands the "unconditional release" of the two Israeli soldiers.
Ban met Friday with Lebanese security chiefs to discuss ways of enhancing the monitoring capabilities of the Lebanese army along the Syria-Lebanon border, saying "there are allegations, information that the arms embargo is not being implemented." Israel has said Hizbullah continues to receive arms smuggled across the border with Syria, one of Hizbullah's principal patrons.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who is opposed to Hizbullah and Syrian influence, said the Lebanese government was trying to improve its monitoring capabilities but stressed that "not one single case of arms smuggling across the border" with Syria has been recorded.
Ban also met Friday with rival Lebanese leaders, including a Hizbullah legislator, who are locked in a bitter political dispute that has paralyzed the country and threatens to tear it apart.
He urged them to engage in dialogue as the only way to end the political crisis and to approve an international court to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an issue stalled in Parliament amid sharp divisions between the government and the opposition, which includes members of Hizbullah.