Syria said ready to cede disputed area to UN

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UNITED NATIONS, Sep 26 (Reuters) Syria has indicated it is willing to allow the United Nations to take custody of the disputed Shebaa Farms area claimed by Lebanon but which is under Israeli occupation, a Spanish diplomat said today.

The Lebanese militant group Hizbollah has used Israel's continuing occupation of the area to justify continuing armed attacks on the Jewish state, triggering a 34-day war last year when its fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

The Syrian offer on the small area in the foothills of the Golan Heights, was made to Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos last month and conveyed by Spain to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the diplomat said.

He confirmed a report in the Israeli daily Haaretz that Moratinos, a former European Union Middle East envoy, had sent a letter to Ban two weeks ago after discussing the matter with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

''The facts are correct,'' the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because his minister did not wish to comment.

However, he disputed the newspaper's interpretation that the Syrian move was a gambit to put pressure on Israel, which Haaretz said opposed withdrawing from the area at this time.

A spokesman at the Israeli mission to the United Nations declined to comment on the report. Syrian officials were not available for comment.

Israel captured the Shebaa Farms from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and the United Nations certified that it had withdrawn from all Lebanese territory when its troops pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000.

UN officials say their cartographers are working at full speed to demarcate the disputed territory and analyze which country has jurisdiction.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last September that Israel would be willing to discuss the status of the Shebaa Farms, but only if Lebanon disarmed Hizbollah, which it has refused to do.

Haaretz said Syria was willing to transfer the area to UN custody before the international border between it and Lebanon has been fully demarcated.

Reuters KK VP0045

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