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Lebanon asks US to push Israel to leave Shebaa

By Staff
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WASHINGTON, Apr 20 (Reuters) Lebanon's prime minister today urged the United States to pressure Israel to pull out of the disputed Shebaa Farms, but the Bush administration said this was an issue for Lebanon to resolve with Syria.

Fouad Siniora said Israel must leave the Shebaa Farms border area so his government could have authority over all its land and he asked President George W. Bush's help to achieve this goal.

''Israel should withdraw from all the territories that belong to Lebanon. This would be a very important step in the process we are taking so that we reach a point where Lebanon will be liberated from all Israeli occupation,'' Siniora said at the National Press Club in Washington.

Siniora, who discussed the issue with Bush this week, said the US president had listened carefully and voiced ''appreciation for our request.'' Israel took control of the tiny region where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet during the 1967 Middle East War. The United Nations and Israel both say Shebaa is Syrian land while Lebanon argues it belongs to them.

Asked whether the United States would put pressure on Israel over Shebaa Farms, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the disputed territory was an issue for Syria and Lebanon to work out and not the United States.

He said public statements from both Syria and Lebanon indicated agreement the disputed territory belonged to Lebanon but Syria was not prepared to enter negotiations on this.

''Syria is all too happy to let the situation stand as it is, because in their view, there is no percentage in beginning a negotiation with Lebanon on this,'' said McCormack.

''So I think it is a fair assessment to say that they are the key stumbling block to resolving these issues,'' he added.

Lebanon says Israel's 2000 pullout from southern Lebanon was incomplete -- a claim that has allowed Hizbollah guerrillas to continue to launch sporadic attacks on Israeli forces from there.

In a report on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Lebanon must set its borders with Syria and disband Hizbollah, a Shi'ite Muslim group Hizbollah supported by Syria and Iran, before it could be master of its own nation.

In turn, Annan said Syria should take up Lebanon's offer of establishing diplomatic relations as well as demarcating the entire 160-mile (250-km) boundary between the two countries.

But Syria has said it is premature to establish diplomatic ties with Beirut and has also refused to demarcate the border.

Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon a year ago following a popular uprising after the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik al-Hariri. Many Lebanese blame Syria for his death but Damascus denies any involvement.

REUTERS SC PM0155

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