BEIRUT, Lebanon—Israel fired artillery near the southern Lebanese village of Chebaa on Wednesday and two rockets were fired toward Israel in response, a witness said, underscoring the tough road ahead for a peacekeeping force along the volatile border.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora pleaded for international donations to help rebuild his battered nation, while Syria complained about a new proposal to place peacekeepers along its border to prevent the Islamist militant group Hezbollah from resupplying itself.
Saniora told a news conference that Lebanon is "in dire need of assistance" to repair the billions of dollars in damage wrought by Israeli airstrikes during the 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah militants. About 35,000 Lebanese homes and businesses were destroyed, along with a large part of the country's infrastructure, including bridges, highways and airport runways.
Saniora called on the United States to persuade Israel to lift an air and sea blockade that he said was strangling Lebanon's economy and slowing the arrival of humanitarian assistance. Israeli officials have said the blockade will remain until a new international peacekeeping force arrives, which could take weeks.
"The United States can support us in putting real pressure on Israel to lift the siege," Saniora said.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Kuwait already have donated millions of dollars for reconstruction, while Qatar and other Arab nations have pledged money. President Bush on Monday announced a $230 million U.S. aid package, a dramatic increase from a previous offer of $50 million. An international donors' conference on Lebanon is scheduled for Aug. 31 in Sweden.
Israel said its artillery barrage Wednesday was in response to incoming fire. The Israeli shells landed near Lebanese army positions in the predominantly Sunni Muslim village of Chebaa and injured no one, according to the Lebanese government.
Bassem Ghader, 44, a Chebaa resident who was reached by phone Wednesday, said Israeli flares lighted up the sky overnight, followed by artillery. Ghader, who owns a print shop, said Israel appeared to have been targeting a nearby mountain.
After the night of shelling, he said, he watched two rockets fired from his town soar toward Israel, though he said he couldn't see who launched them. He said Israel didn't respond.
"The people here are so afraid," said Ghader, a Sunni. "The ones who live on the outskirts have moved inside the city or they have left altogether. The shelling went on a long time last night. Is this a cease-fire?"
Such flare-ups add to the concern of nations deciding whether to offer troops for a beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon. The cease-fire agreement calls for a 15,000-strong international force along the border, but assembling it has proved difficult as potential donor nations push for a mandate that allows better self-defense and clear rules of engagement.
France, which leads the current peacekeeping mission, disappointed the U.N. by agreeing to send just 200 troops for the new force. Italy volunteered to take the lead, while other European countries—including Spain, Belgium and Germany—have offered tentative support. Predominantly Muslim nations such as Bangladesh and Malaysia have offered front-line troops, but those plans are uncertain after Israel announced that it would reject soldiers from nations that don't have diplomatic relations with it.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to attend a meeting of European Union foreign ministers Friday to explain how the peacekeeping mission would work.
Preliminary calls for another international force to monitor the Lebanese-Syrian border drew angry comments from Syrian President Bashar Assad. News agencies reported that Assad, whose nation is thought to be the transit point for weapons smuggled from Iran to Hezbollah, threatened to close his nation's border with Lebanon if international peacekeepers are stationed there.
"This is an infringement on Lebanese sovereignty and a hostile position," Assad told Dubai TV.
In separate incidents, munitions left over from the conflict killed three Lebanese soldiers and an Israeli soldier, highlighting concerns over the unexploded ordnance that litters several border villages.
The three Lebanese soldiers, including an officer, died near the southern city of Tibnine while dismantling an unexploded Israeli cluster bomb, Lebanese officials said.
Israeli officials said a soldier was killed overnight and three others were wounded when a tank patrolling in southern Lebanon mistakenly entered their own minefield near the Israeli border. The wounded included two army officers.
"An initial inquiry shows that the force accidentally entered a minefield which was planted by the IDF in the past in order to prevent armed gunmen from approaching the border fence," an Israel Defense Forces statement said.
(Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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