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U.N. accelerates moves to ensure peace in Lebanon
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Diplomatic moves to ensure peace along the border between Israel and Lebanon continued on Friday with renewed urgency following Israel's withdrawal Wednesday from southern Lebanon.
U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said he would travel to south Lebanon on Friday, having already sent an advance team of experts to verify the Israeli pullout.
Roed-Larsen, who is on a mission to Beirut, described his talks on Thursday with Lebanese officials as "very encouraging."
Israel and Syria both issued calls for peace. Damascus, which has 35,000 troops in Lebanon, is the main power broker there.
The United Nations said it was intensifying efforts to bolster its peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, "We are trying to accelerate the process very quickly. As you know, we were planning for the Israeli withdrawal later in June or early July. ..."
Annan said he hopes to verify within the next few days that the Israeli withdrawal was complete, and he wants to get the additional peacekeepers in as soon as possible after that.
U.N. force to nearly double in size
The United Nations plan calls for verification of the Israeli withdrawal to the international border, and a transition of civil and military control to the Lebanese government with the aid of the U.N. force, which would almost double in size to 7,900.
Roed-Larsen told CNN, "The task of the United Nations is now to verify, but also to assist the government of Lebanon in order to restore its authority over the formerly occupied areas of the south.
"What we do expect is that eventually all the militia will cease to exist, and weapons and all authority related to military matters in the south gets under the control of the government of Lebanon."
Roed-Larsen said he would ask Israel to provide the United Nations with detailed information and maps showing the location of land mines.
He also said the U.N. was trying to resolve one of the outstanding issues -- the demand by the Lebanese government that Israel release all Lebanese prisoners it still holds.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak appealed to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud to use the Israeli withdrawal as a springboard for peace.
Speaking in a special parliament session in the border town of Kiryat Shemona, Barak said, "we have left all of your country's territory to the international border that is recognized by the United Nations.
"We do not covet a single bit of your land, and we have no demands on you, except for carefully guarding security along our common border. Israel extends its hand in peace, envisioning a better common future for the children of both peoples."
Barak also said Israel would hold Lebanon and Syria directly responsible for maintaining peace along the border and would consider attacks as "acts of war."
Syria urges restraint
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa urged Israel to show restraint and to seek peace.
"What we want (is) that they extend a hand for peace -- we are ready to welcome it -- and not to extend their muscles, because we have enough of extending muscles," he told reporters after meeting European Union officials in Lisbon.
Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss rejected concerns on Thursday that Hezbollah guerrillas -- and not Lebanese security forces -- were controlling the streets of southern Lebanon following the Israeli withdrawal.
"Hezbollah is one of the Lebanese parties, and the leading one, actually," the prime minister said. "They are a very responsible party, and they will be cooperating with the United Nations force when it deploys and will be cooperating with the government."
Hoss said Lebanon was involved in providing security for the region while the U.N. prepares to move in its peacekeeping force. The Lebanese army, he said, will not be deployed until U.N. forces have the area under control.
Lebanese national holiday
Lebanon declared Thursday a national holiday. Many Lebanese, waving yellow Hezbollah flags and the green, white and red flags of their country, trekked to the border to celebrate.
"It's a great day for Lebanon," Hoss said. "This is a day when all Lebanese in all districts are celebrating the liberation of the south of Lebanon from Israeli occupation, which had lasted for 22 years."
The notorious Khiam prison -- run by the Israeli-allied militia, the South Lebanon Army -- was a top holiday draw.
Hoss was among the holiday visitors to the prison, which was holding 140 prisoners on the day the SLA abandoned the facility and its doors were opened.
"It was a very sad moment for me to see this place," the prime minister said. "It was horrendous, actually. This is the place where the Israelis incarcerated so many Lebanese ... for years in a row and subjected them to the worst of torture. It was very inhuman, and it was very saddening for any Lebanese to look into such a place."
Israel has denied any connection with Khiam prison, but the Lebanese make no distinction between the Israelis and their former militia allies.
The collapse of the SLA, in the face of advancing Hezbollah fighters, precipitated the early withdrawal of the Israeli troops.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Israel dismantled several outposts that jutted just across the border into Lebanon. Barak aide David Ziso said the work had been completed by Thursday afternoon.
Lebanese premier says Hezbollah no cause for worry in southern Lebanon
Knesset - The Israeli Parliament
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