US switches Cole with two warships
WASHINGTON (AFP) — Two US warships have taken up position in the eastern Mediterranean off Lebanon, replacing the USS Cole, a US Navy official said Wednesday.
The Cole, an Aegis destroyer that was attacked and nearly sunk by suicide bombers in Yemen in 2000, was headed to the Gulf after transiting the Suez Canal, canal authority officials said.
"The USS Cole was relieved by the USS Ross and the USS Philippine Sea in the eastern Mediterranean," the navy official said.
The Ross is an Aegis-guided missile destroyer and the Philippine Sea is a cruiser.
"It's a sign of our commitment to stability in the region," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.
The Cole was deployed to waters off Lebanon to signal US concern over a protracted political crisis in Lebanon.
Feuding between a western-backed parliamentary majority and the Syrian and Iranian-backed opposition has left the country leaderless since November.
Iranian and Saudi foreigners meet in Cairo
CAIRO (Reuters) - The foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia held talks at Cairo airport on Wednesday, Egyptian officials said, in a possible attempt to resolve a political crisis in Lebanon.
The Saudi minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, later had talks in the same VIP lounge at the airport with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, who flew in from Amman.
Lebanon has not had a head of state since November due to a power struggle.
Saudi Arabia and the United States back the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora while Iran and Syria are allies of the Shi'ite Muslim opposition group Hezbollah. Arab diplomats say an Iranian-Saudi agreement could break the deadlock.
The officials said Prince Saud and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki talked about Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, but gave no further details.
The prince was preparing to leave Egypt after an Arab League ministerial meeting which reaffirmed an Arab plan to resolve Lebanon's constitutional crisis.
Mottaki had come from a U.N. meeting in Geneva. Senior Iranian officials rarely visit Egypt, which has not had diplomatic relations with Tehran since soon after the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Egyptian officials said Welch had come on a two-day visit to talk about the recent violence between Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
(Writing by Jonathan Wright; editing by Robert Woodward)
Arabs threaten to freeze peace offer
By Abeer Allam
March 6 (Bloomberg) -- Arab foreign ministers threatened to freeze their peace initiative during an Arab summit in Syria this month, unless Israel acts ``positively'' toward the offer and ends an offensive on the Gaza Strip.
The initiative, proposed by Saudi Arabia at the Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, calls for full Arab recognition of Israel, in return for Israeli withdrawal from the Arab land occupied in 1967 and establishing a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as the capital.
The decision comes in response to growing popular pressure in Arab countries, especially those with full diplomatic ties with Israel, to act against the Israeli operations in Gaza. Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace accord with Israel in 1979 and Jordan followed suit in 1994.
``We will not give any more concessions to Israel; we will not keep begging for peace,'' Amr Moussa, secretary general of the 22-member state Arab League, told reporters after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo yesterday to set the agenda for the March 29-30 summit in Damascus. The initiative will be reactivated when Israel ``shows commitment to establishing a Palestinian state,'' he said.
At least 120 Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded in air attacks and a ground offensive started by Israel on Feb. 29 after an Israeli was killed by a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip. Hamas took over Gaza in June after nine days of fighting in which it ousted the Fatah movement. Fatah controls the West Bank.
``This is a negative step,'' said Emad Gad, editor-in-chief of Israeli Digest, a publication of Al Ahram Center of Strategic Studies, a Cairo-based think tank. ``It reflects the Arab leaders' embarrassment because they can't stop Israel. The Arabs should have offered a more detailed initiative with clear steps to pressure Israel to react positively.''
Shani Cooper-Zubida, spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy in Cairo, said that Israel has responded positively to the Arab peace initiative and the decision does not help peace in the region.
``Arab countries will benefit economically from having full relations with Israel,'' she said in an interview yesterday. ``We'd better focus on building ties.''
Jordan and Egypt receive aid of about $2.3 billion a year from the U.S. and have won tariff-free access to its markets.
The Arab League also said yesterday that Syria will invite Lebanon to the Arab summit whether Lebanon has elected a president or not. Lebanon has been without a president since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term ended Nov. 23, a crisis that was originally high on the agenda for the Damascus summit.
Struggle to Influence
The standoff reflects the struggle to influence politics in Lebanon between the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, backed by the West, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the opposition, backed by Syria and Iran.
``Syria will invite Lebanon and Lebanon will choose who will represent it,'' Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters yesterday. ``We will also invite Saudi Arabia, eventually.''
Syria has invited most Arab League members except Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Countries like Egypt did not confirm the level of their representation in the summit.
Israel penetrates 1km into Lebanon
BEIRUT, March 6 (Xinhua) -- Israeli forces on Thursday penetrated the border line in south Lebanon towards the Ghajar area overseeing Wazani river, but did not cross the "Blue Line," Future TV reported.
Previous report said that Israeli troops crossed the border line towards Wazani River and inched six km, but did not cross the "Blue Line," but Future TV said later that it advanced only one km.
Meanwhile, New TV reported an incursion by Israeli infantry patrol into southern Lebanese territories in the Wazani region.
According to local Naharnet news website, the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) denied that Israeli troops crossed the "Blue Line' into Lebanese territories on Thursday.
The border line consists of an electrical wire set by Israel to separating Israeli borders from Lebanese ones.
Following the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, the United Nations drew a border line called the "Blue Line," but this line did not cover the disputed Shebaa farms.
Former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud rejected the "Blue Line," considering the step violates Lebanon's territories.
The disputed Shebaa farms, which lies in the mountainous border region between Lebanon, Syria and Israel, was captured by Israel when it seized the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
When the Israeli army pulled out of south Lebanon in 2000, ending a 22-year occupation, UN cartographers determined that Shebaa was part of Syria.
The UN, therefore, declared that Israel had fully withdrawn from Lebanon and it drew a border demarcation line known as the Blue Line. The Shebaa farms are now claimed by Lebanon with the approval of Syria.