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U.N.: Syria Promises Cease-Fire Help

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Friday that Syria would step up border patrols and work with the Lebanese army to stop the flow of weapons to Hezbollah.

In a meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Annan also asked Syria to "use its influence" to help win the release of three Israeli soldiers held by Lebanese and Palestinian militants allied with Damascus.

Meanwhile, Palestinian militants fired homemade rockets into Israel on Friday, defying the latest calls by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to halt the attacks. The Israeli army said two or three rockets fell in the Negev desert in southern Israel, after five hit Israeli territory on Thursday. No injuries were reported either day.

In Stockholm, donors pledged $500 million in aid for Palestinians Friday, including $55 million for a U.N. emergency appeal for humanitarian help, organizers said.

In other developments:

  • The Israeli military says its troops have demolished an unspecified number of Hezbollah bunkers around the southern Lebanese village of Ayt a-Shab, the scene of fierce fighting during the 34-day war. The statement said the bunkers contained rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortar shells, light arms and communications equipment.
  • Defense Minister Amir Peretz is demanding a sweeping, independent inquiry into Israel's recent war in Lebanon, associates said Friday, even though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier this week rebuffed demands for such a probe. Instead, Olmert appointed an investigation of his own.
  • Tens of thousands of Israelis thronged a central square in Tel Aviv on Thursday night, calling for the release of three Israeli soldiers being held by Arab militants in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Two were captured by Hezbollah on July 12, sparking the war. A third was captured two weeks earlier by Hamas-linked militants in the Gaza Strip.

    Syria will boost the number of it own guards along the Lebanon-Syria border, and establish joint patrols with the Lebanese army "where possible," Annan said.

    Assad made no public comments after their meeting, but Annan spoke with reporters at the Damascus airport before departing at midday for Qatar.

    "While stating Syria's objection to the presence of foreign forces along the Lebanese-Syrian borders, the president (Assad) committed to me that Syria shall take all necessary measures to implement in full paragraph 15 of resolution 1701," Annan said.

    The Aug. 11 resolution, which halted fighting between Israel and Hezbollah three days later, calls on countries to prevent the sale or supply of weapons to entities in Lebanon without the consent of the Lebanese government or U.N. peacekeepers. It also calls for Lebanon to "secure its borders and other entry points."

    Israel wants international troops, part of a beefed-up U.N. force of 15,000, to deploy along the Lebanon-Syria border — something Syria has balked at.

    Annan said Syria "will undertake as soon as possible" measures to increase its number of border guards and give them additional training and equipment. Syria would also "establish liaison mechanisms with the Lebanese armed forces, border police and international personnel providing technical assistance to the Lebanese in order to set up an effective interdiction regime," he added.

    Asked whether such measures would succeed in blocking arms shipments to Hezbollah, Annan replied: "I think it can happen. It may not be 100 percent, but it will make quite a lot of difference if the government puts in place the measures the government has discussed with me. I have no reason to believe it will not be done."

    On the issue of disarming Hezbollah, Annan said Assad "accepts and supports the decisions of Lebanese national dialogue on disarmament of militias."

    Before the 34-day war, Lebanese politicians failed to reach consensus on Hezbollah's arsenal. Since then Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has defended his group's need for weapons, but has said he was open to dialogue on the matter.

    Annan has said the expanded U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, would not disarm Hezbollah — calling the issue a matter for the Lebanese to decide.

    The only Syrian comment after the Assad-Annan meeting came from Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who would not comment on details of the meeting, but said: "Now there is a window that can be benefited from if the international community is truthful in its efforts toward a just and comprehensive peace. Otherwise, the other bad choice (war) is possible."

    Annan said the cessation of hostilities in Lebanon provided an opportunity to move toward greater Mideast peace.

    He and Assad agreed that "the time has come to reactivate and re-energize peace efforts in the region in order to reach comprehensive peace agreements in accordance with United Nations resolutions," Annan said. The resolution that ended the 34-day war in Lebanon also "articulated the need for a forward-looking vision of a comprehensive peace in the region, one which puts all the outstanding issues on the table," he said.

    "Out of the recent tragedy of war, there is a window of opportunity of peace and prosperity that we must not miss. I will do whatever I can to help the parties move along that road to peace that has eluded this region and all of us for long," he added.

    Earlier this week, Abbas criticized Palestinian militants for continuing to fire rockets at Israeli border communities, saying the attacks give Israel an excuse to strike Gaza.

    "What is happening in Gaza as a result of rockets fired in vain must stop right now because there is no national interest in this continuing," Abbas said in a speech Wednesday. Dozens of Gazans have been killed and many more injured in recent months, he said. "For what?" Abbas said.

    Abbas has made similar appeals in the past, only to be rebuffed by militants.

    A total of $114 million of the money pledged for Palestinian aid will go toward humanitarian aid, with the rest going to rebuilding infrastructure and other projects, said Carin Jamtin, Sweden's aid minister and host of the donors' conference held in the Swedish capital.

    "I would say this is a fantastic result," she said.

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