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Lebanon Challenges Syria on Disputed Border


Lebanon's prime minister, Fuad Siniora, has challenged Syria to establish diplomatic relations and demarcate their border. Mr. Siniora is asking the U.N. secretary-general to help in settling a long-standing border dispute.

The Lebanese prime minister Tuesday said the scars caused by what he called, "heavy-handed interference" by Syrian security forces in Lebanese domestic affairs would not be easy to heal. But in an address to the U.N. Security Council, he challenged Syria to establish normal diplomatic relations, and demarcate their common border.

Mr. Siniora said, one key to normalizing relations between Beirut and Damascus would be Israeli withdrawal from a small strip of disputed territory, known as the Shebaa Farms.

The United Nations has determined the Shebaa land is part of the Syrian Golan Heights, and called for Syria and Israel to determine its fate. But both Syria and Lebanon say the region is in Lebanon.

Israel captured the territory in a 1967 war and has occupied it since.

Mr. Siniora told the Security Council he would ask Secretary-General Kofi Annan to confirm specific steps required by the U.N. to recognize Lebanese sovereignty over the disputed area.

"The delineation of the Lebanese Shebaa Farms area, and which Israel has continued to occupy, even after its withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, is important in this context, because it has major implications in our ability to liberate it," said Mr. Siniora.

The Lebanese prime minister said agreement with Syria on the border in the Shebaa Farms area would be an important step toward achieving full withdrawal of Israelis.

But Syria's acting U.N. ambassador, Milad Atieh, rejected that formulation. He told the Council, the Shebaa Farms question could not be discussed, until after Israel withdraws. He spoke through an interpreter.

"Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories, before our two countries, Lebanon and Syria, can demarcate their borders," he said. "Because delineating borders of Shebaa can only occur after freeing this area from foreign occupation."

The Syrian representative also suggested that Damascus remains cool to normalizing diplomatic relations with Lebanon. He said the issue could be discussed, in his words, "if there is mutual will."

In a September 2004 resolution, the Security Council demanded Syria's full withdrawal from Lebanon, and the disbanding and disarmament of all militias, including Hezbollah, which the United States regards as a terrorist group. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah has kept its weapons, saying they are needed to defend Lebanon.

Prime Minister Siniora told the Security Council that the question of disarming Hezbollah would be reconsidered in light of security developments. He called Lebanese control over all its territory "a major challenge to be addressed in the period ahead."

"The future role of Hezbollah's weapons in defending Lebanon is a matter of national debate," added Mr. Siniora. "This debate will be carried out in the context of an agreed upon strategy among the Lebanese, on how best to defend Lebanon."

Siniora said his meetings earlier this week with President Bush in Washington had been very positive. The United States has been trying to help restore Lebanon's political independence, and disarm militias. But after Siniora's visit, a State Department spokesman was skeptical that a solution was near.

Spokesman Sean McCormack said Syria appears, in his words "all too happy to let the situation stand as it is."

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