JERUSALEM - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan today said he hoped to soon double to 5,000 the number of UN troops in southern Lebanon and urged Israel and Hizbollah to swiftly end rows blocking a permanent ceasefire.
Annan said he would ask Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in talks on Wednesday to lift Israel's air and sea blockade of Lebanon, imposed at the start of the war nearly seven weeks ago.
Speaking after meeting Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz following a visit to Lebanon, Annan said Israel had committed most violations of a two-week-old truce that ended the war.
Annan is in the region to secure full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought about the truce and calls for deployment of 15,000 UN peacekeepers by November 4.
"My hopes are that with the French deployment moving forward and with the Italians beginning on Friday, that we should be able to double relatively quickly the 2,500 men we have on the ground and move up to 5,000 so that the Israelis can withdraw," Annan said.
Peretz said Israel would pull out thousands of troops that remain in southern Lebanon once a "reasonable" number of UN soldiers had deployed but he did not give a figure.
On a trip to devastated south Lebanon, Annan said "serious irritants" to the ceasefire were the fate of two Israeli soldiers seized by Hizbollah and that of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel, as well as Israel's blockade.
"I will also discuss ... with the prime minister the need to lift that blockade as soon as possible in order to allow Lebanon to go on with normal commercial activities and also rebuild its economy," Annan said.
He said the Lebanese saw the blockade as a "humiliation and infringement of their sovereignty". He reiterated calls for Beirut to exert control over its borders to stop arms smuggling.
Israel has refused to lift the blockade, citing the need to prevent the rearming of the Lebanese guerrilla group, whose capture of the two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12 sparked the 34-day war.
Annan met the families of the abducted soldiers as well as loved ones of a soldier seized by Palestinian militants from Gaza on June 25. He promised to help win their release, the families said.
ITALIAN TROOPS ENROUTE
Italy's first contingent of 800 troops, out of an eventual 3,000 pledged, set sail on what Rome said would be a "long and risky" mission. The aircraft carrier Garibaldi and four other naval ships were due to reach Lebanon by Friday.
France, which has troops in the existing UNIFIL forces, promised to send a 900-strong battalion before the middle of September, with a second battalion to follow.
The Turkish government said it wanted parliament to meet on September 5 to approve a troop contribution to the UN force, a day after agreeing in principle to send soldiers.
The war cost the lives of nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
The United Nations hopes to create a buffer zone in south Lebanon free of Israeli or Hizbollah forces and policed by the expanded UN force alongside some 15,000 Lebanese troops.
It is hoping Muslim nations will send troops to balance the 7,000 or so pledged by European countries.
Potential Muslim contributors include Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, although Israel has objected to their taking part because they have no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
Olmert, under fire at home over his handling of the conflict, told local officials in northern Israel the Jewish state was still a force to be reckoned with.
"Two weeks after the war, I am still the one who is approving take-offs and landings in Beirut and that shows you that something happened here," the YNET News website quoted Olmert as saying in the city of Tiberias.
He also taunted Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
"While I am travelling around the north, Nasrallah has yet to come out of his bunker," Olmert said.
The truce on Israel's northern border is generally holding, but violence has continued in the Palestinian territories.
Israeli troops killed three Palestinians near Gaza City, medics said, as the army battled militants in an offensive to free the soldier abducted by Gaza-based gunmen.
Israeli troops also killed two gunmen during a clash in the Balata refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, witnesses said.
More than 190 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, have been killed in Gaza in Israel's two-month-old offensive.