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Powell Appeals for Easing of Tension Along Israeli-Lebanese Border - 2003-10-27

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell appealed Monday for a lowering of tensions along the Israeli-Lebanese border. The call follows more skirmishing between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas and an implied Syrian threat to attack Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights.

Mr. Powell is calling on the parties to lower tensions and curb their rhetoric after another exchange of fire between Israel and Hezbollah, and a suggestion by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa that Damascus might respond to any further Israeli air strike into Syria by attacking Israelis in the Golan Heights.

At a press appearance after meeting here with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Mr. Powell made the appeal when questioned about the remarks attributed to his Syrian counterpart in a British newspaper interview published Sunday. "We're encouraging both sides to lower the tension and lower the rhetorical tension as well. These sorts of statements do not assist us, they do not assist any of the parties in the region, to try to move forward. They just heighten tension. So I would encourage both sides to refrain from these kinds of rhetorical threats," he said.

In the London Sunday Telegraph interview, Mr. Sharaa was quoted as saying his government would not stand for a repeat of Israel's October 5 air strike against an alleged terrorist training camp in Syria, and pointedly suggested that a Syrian response might include attacks in Israeli settlements in the Golan.

In Monday's violence, Israeli warplanes bombed Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon after guerrillas shelled Israeli positions in the disputed Sheba Farms enclave.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is pressing Syria and Lebanon to exert their influence to prevent the Hezbollah shelling and maintain calm in the border region. He said all sides should abide by their commitments to the United Nations to avoid violations of the U.N.-demarcated withdrawal line drawn after Israel's Lebanon pullout in May of 2000.

He also renewed the U.S. call on Lebanon to take control of the immediate border area from Hezbollah under terms of a U.N. Security Council resolution approved last August.

Mr. Powell said he and his counterpart from the United Arab Emirates also discussed Iraq, Iran's nuclear program, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said he reaffirmed to Sheikh al-Nahyan the Bush administration's commitment to the Middle East "road map" and its intention to work with both sides to "get back on track" with the peace plan as soon as there is a new Palestinian government the United States "can work with."

In the meantime, Mr. Powell said U.S. officials are in contact with Israeli leaders to encourage them not to take any actions which would "prejudge" any elements of the road map.