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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lebanese Take Steps to Secure Border

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The Lebanese government undertook Thursday to stop smuggling across Lebanon's border with Syria, playing down a controversy between Syria and Israel over whether UN forces should deploy there to stop arms shipments.

Israel says it will not lift a sea and air blockade of Lebanon unless a reinforced UN peacekeeping force helps the Lebanese army control the border so that no new weapons reach Hezbollah in the south. Lebanon regards the continuing blockade as a violation of the fragile cease-fire agreement, which has been in effect for 10 days.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, denounced the plans for the deployment of a multinational force along its border in a television interview broadcast in Dubai on Wednesday.

"This is an infringement on Lebanese sovereignty and a hostile position," he told Dubai Television.

The dispute has the Lebanese government caught in the middle. Its priority is to reopen the country to the world, but it has limited influence over either Syria and Israel.

Culture Minister Tareq Mitri, who led the Lebanese delegation in truce talks at the United Nations this month, said: "The Lebanese government is working hard to secure the border and lift the blockade.

"The Lebanese stance is clear. The sovereignty of any state includes securing its border crossings, preventing any smuggling attempts, and this is what the Lebanese state is planning to do," he told Voice of Lebanon radio.

The truce came into effect on Aug. 14, ending a 34-day war between by Israel and Hezbollah. More than 1,100 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Lebanon and 157 in Israel.

But the cease-fire is fragile and eyewitnesses said that Israeli warplanes flew the over Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon on Thursday morning -- an act Lebanon considers a truce violation.

A squad of Israeli troops returned to the Lebanese border village of Houla on Thursday morning, security sources said. Israeli forces had withdrawn from Houla after the truce came into effect.

A Lebanese government official who asked not to be named said Lebanon had asked the United Nations for technical help to monitor the border crossings but not to deploy UN troops along the border with Syria.

Asked if the government would ask for UN forces right on the border, he said: "The decision is up to the Cabinet and it has not made it yet. It depends on the situation."

The Lebanese army has started to deploy along parts of the Syrian border but the United Nations is finding it hard to muster more troop contingents to strengthen UNIFIL.

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht visited Beirut on Thursday and promised to take part in the force.

"He informed me that Belgium will contribute to the UNIFIL force in the south, but the numbers and the mechanism depend on the [European Union] meeting in Brussels tomorrow," Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh told reporters.

The UN resolution setting the terms for the cease-fire calls for the removal from south Lebanon of armed personnel other than those of UNIFIL and the Lebanese army.

(Reuters, NYT)