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Israel to leave Lebanon once UN sends 5,000-Italy

Written by: Staff

ROME, Aug 31 (Reuters) Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres has told Italy that Israel will begin pulling out troops from southern Lebanon once 5,000 UN peacekeepers arrive, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said today.

''Shimon Peres confirmed to me that with the arrival of 5,000 members of the UN force in southern Lebanon, Israeli forces will start to withdraw,'' Prodi told reporters after meeting with Peres in Rome.

Standing next to Prodi, Peres did not comment on what Prodi had said, but his office later released a statement that said: ''Israeli troops will withdraw if the UN troops deploy in every place that ensures the implementation of Security Council resolution 1701.'' Israel's army says it has already handed over more than two thirds of the territory it captured in southern Lebanon to the United Nations. Israel began to pull out its troops soon after a truce came into effect.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan today renewed his call on Israel to withdraw fully as soon as 5,000 peacekeepers were in southern Lebanon, around double the number there now.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rebuffed the demand when Annan was in Jerusalem yesterday, saying troops would stay until all parts of a UN resolution that halted hostilities with the Hizbollah guerrilla group on Aug. 14 were met.

Italy will lead the UN force in Lebanon starting next year and has committed up to 3,000 soldiers to help secure the truce.

Peres congratulated Prodi on what he said was Italy's ''new image'' in world politics by taking a leading role in the Lebanon crisis.

''I think what Italy has done right now under Prime Minister Prodi was to build a new bridge in the West Asia,'' he said.

''I believe that Italy can play an important role in bringing the Palestinians and us together to negotiate,'' Peres added.

When asked about reports that Italy was working behind the scenes to negotiate the release of the two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbollah, Prodi said Italy was prepared to help, but had not achieved anything so far.

''We are available to do all we can to help this episode come to an end, a happy return of the kidnapped soldiers ... Up to now we have not been able to do anything more, but certainly the readiness is there.'' Reuters AB GC2210

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