Facebook Twitter

Hezbollah backers boo Annan

SHARE Hezbollah backers boo Annan

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Throngs of Hezbollah supporters booed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and blocked him from touring a devastated suburb of Beirut on Monday, underscoring the difficulties ahead for Lebanon to become what Annan has envisioned as "one law, one authority, one gun."

Beirut was Annan's first stop on an 11-day tour of the Middle East to shore up the fragile truce between Israel and Hezbollah militants after a monthlong conflict that killed at least 1,000 Lebanese and demolished swaths of the country. Annan also renewed calls for Israel to lift its air and sea blockade on Lebanon, and for Hezbollah to free two Israeli soldiers whose abduction July 12 provoked the fighting.

The United Nations chief expressed optimism about the speedy expansion of a peacekeeping mission along Lebanon's volatile border with Israel, starting with an initial deployment of 3,500 troops for a force expected to grow to 15,000. He said the role of the peacekeepers would be to help the Lebanese government reclaim authority over the country.

On Monday, Italy's Cabinet approved sending 2,500 troops to Lebanon.

Turkey's Cabinet also voted to send peacekeepers, becoming the first Muslim country that has relations with Israel to make such an offer. The Lebanese army is expected to have another 15,000 soldiers along the border once Israel fully withdraws from southern Lebanon, as called for in the U.N.-brokered cease-fire agreement.

"According to the resolution there should be no other arms in the south except those of the Lebanese army and the international forces," Annan said.

Annan, at a news conference alongside Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, added that diplomacy — not force — was the best way to disarm Hezbollah.

Annan had planned to end his day trip with a tour of Haret Hreik, a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut's south suburbs where Israeli airstrikes flattened several blocks of businesses and apartment buildings during the recent conflict. But angry residents rejecting calls for Hezbollah to disarm swarmed Annan's motorcade. Booing and shouting, many held photos of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and at least one waved a caricature of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a vampire.

Annan stepped out briefly, but the crowd moved closer and his bodyguards bundled him back into his car.

"The people feel he's responsible and the U.N. — whom he represents — is responsible for what happened," said Jalal Nour, a Hezbollah volunteer whose computer shop in the suburbs was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. "The U.N. gave the cover for Israel to do what they did. People acted spontaneously, out of anger."

That type of reaction is exactly what many nations fear as they decide whether to add their troops to the new peacekeeping mission, which could be caught in the crossfire if another conflict erupts. Annan said that at least 300 U.N. troops had been killed since the existing international force, known as UNIFIL, deployed to Lebanon in 1978.

U.N. officials played down the incident, saying Annan was able to walk around.

"It wasn't supposed to be more than 10 minutes, but maybe it was nine because of security concerns," said U.N. spokesman Maher Nasser, who was part of Annan's convoy.

However, a McClatchy photographer's shots of the scene, as well as TV news footage, show that the motorcade exited hastily after it was mobbed.

"We are not the enemy to either side, and they should be careful not to shoot at us," Annan said.

In Turkey, where the parliament will convene next week on sending troops, many fear a violent backlash if the Muslim nation is perceived as acting in the interests of Israel. Turkey ruled Lebanon for centuries under the Ottoman Empire and is predominantly Sunni Muslim; southern Lebanon is almost entirely Shiite Muslim and effectively controlled by Hezbollah.

Timor Goksel, a Turkish national and the former head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, noted that Turkish forces have served in other Muslim conflict zones, such as Afghanistan and Bosnia. He said Hezbollah, Israel and Syria all had shown support for a Turkish presence in south Lebanon but that many Turkish officials still sought clear rules of engagement and mechanisms for self-defense.

While in Beirut, Annan met with the Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a close ally of Hezbollah, as well as a Hezbollah member of the Cabinet. Annan's regional tour is expected to include stops in Israel and in Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's biggest allies in the region.

Contributing: Leila Fadel, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.