Assad says UN troops on border with Lebanon ‘hostile’ move

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s President Bashar Assad was quoted in a TV interview Wednesday as saying that he would consider the deployment of international troops along the Lebanon-Syria border a hostile move towards his country.

“First, this means creating hostile conditions between Syria and Lebanon,” Assad told Dubai Television, according to excerpts released by the TV station ahead of the interview’s airing late Wednesday. “Second, it is a hostile move towards Syria and naturally it will create problems.” Assad did not elaborate on that point in the excerpts. But in Finland, that country’s foreign minister, after meeting with his Syrian counterpart, said Damascus threatened to close its border with Lebanon if UN peacekeepers were deployed there.

“They will close their borders for all traffic in case UN troops will be deployed along the Lebanon-Syria border,” Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said after meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Helsinki.

Finland holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Syria is Lebanon’s only land connection to the Arab world. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that Israel had no plans to lift its air and sea blockade on Lebanon until an international peacekeeping force took up positions along the Syrian border and at Beirut’s airport.

Israel accuses Syria of sending weapons into Lebanon to arm Hizbollah.

In the interview, Assad said such deployment would be “an infringement on Lebanese sovereignty” and urged the Lebanese government to adhere to its responsibilities and not embark on anything that could sabotage relations with Syria, according to the excerpts.

The fighting in Lebanon opened sharp divisions between Syria and other Arab countries, some of whom blamed Damascus for fueling the crisis with its support for Hizbollah. Assad, in turn, blasted Mideast leaders as “half men” in a speech last week — sparking an angry response in state-run media in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

One of the harshest criticisms of Assad came in an editorial in the state-run Egyptian paper Gomhuria on Wednesday. “Your brave [Syrian] army has a record in killing Lebanese,” the editorial said, addressing Assad.

A UN-brokered ceasefire halted fighting between Israel and Hizbollah on August 14. The UN Security Council resolution called for a UN force of 15,000 soldiers to help patrol Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, alongside a Lebanese army contingent of the same size, in an effort to extend the Lebanese government’s authority across its full territory. While the resolution did not explicitly call on the force to police the Syrian frontier, it said peackeepers could help Lebanon, at its government’s request, to secure its borders and prevent illegal weapons from entering the country.

Assad also was quoted as rejecting the demarcation of his country’s border with Lebanon in Shebaa Farms, a small sliver of land where the corners of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet.

Reacting to Assad’s comments on Shebaa Farms, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said Lebanon would act according to its own interests.

“I heard the comments of President Assad and I respect his view,” he told a news conference in Beirut. “But Lebanon will act in ways that would preserve its sovereignty, independence and its interests.” Lebanon claims the region as its own, but Israel has occupied the area since capturing it from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. Syria says the territory is Lebanese but has not provided official documents stating that, and the United Nations has said the territory is Syrian.

The Lebanese government has asked that Shebaa Farms be put under UN control until an official border with Syria could be delineated.

The ceasefire called for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to come up with proposals to demarcate Lebanon’s borders, especially in areas such as Shebaa Farms, and to present those ideas to the Security Council within 30 days.

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