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U.N....s Annan to Press Syria To Crackdown on Arms Line

By Warren Hoge
THE NEW YORK TIMES


DAMASCUS, SYRIA

Kofi Annan SM ’72, the U.N. secretary-general, plans to confront the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, with reports that Syria is permitting arms to cross its border illegally into Lebanon and to demand an end to the traffic when the two meet here on Friday.

Officials at the United Nations said Annan would also challenge Assad to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon and settle a long-festering dispute over the two countries’ borders.

The officials, who agreed to discuss Annan’s strategy only if they were not identified, noted that all the steps were obligations of Syria’s in the unanimously adopted Security Council resolution that halted the fighting between the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia and Israel on Aug. 14.

“Because of that, the secretary-general is entering with a very strong hand,” one of the officials said.

Annan is in the midst of an 11-day tour of the Middle East to seek compliance with the resolution, and the officials said he was acting with unaccustomed directness in what was likely to be the last major diplomatic journey of his 10 years in office, which end Dec. 31.

The three steps that Annan intends to press upon Assad on Friday are all aimed at shoring up Lebanon as an independent country. Syria has dominated Lebanon for most of the past three decades, and, by financing and arming the Hezbollah militia, the officials said, Damascus continues to undermine Beirut’s ability to establish its own authority.

In Israel, which Annan visited on Tuesday, the officials said that Annan found a new willingness to discuss a prisoner exchange as a way of gaining the return of the two Israeli soldiers that were captured by Hezbollah on July 12. That action provoked the 34-day war.

Repatriating the two is a priority with the Israeli public, which is putting pressure on Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, for the failure to achieve the war’s original goals of dismantling and disarming Hezbollah. “Getting the prisoners back has swam to the top of the agenda,” one official said.

Where Israel had resisted all such talk at the outset of the war in July, the officials said, it is now interested in finding an acceptable way to negotiate the men’s freedom. One possibility being explored, they said, was naming a U.N. special envoy to conduct the transaction.

In Stockholm, where he was attending a donors’ conference for Lebanon, Fouad Siniora, the country’s prime minister, said a prisoner swap with Israel was being considered by his government but “nothing has materialized.” He added, “I hope the Israeli government will respond to the call of reason so that we can finish with this and everybody will return to his home.”

The U.N. officials asserted that Israel was more flexible on the timing of the final troop withdrawal from Lebanon than was indicated by Olmert’s public rebuff on Wednesday of Annan’s suggestion that the Israelis should depart once the planned 15,000-person international force reached 5,000.

In Rome on Thursday, Romano Prodi, Italy’s prime minister, told reporters that Shimon Peres, the Israeli deputy prime minister, whom Annan met with on Wednesday, told him that there was support for the idea in Jerusalem.