U.N. chief demands Israel end blockade of Lebanon

? U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Israel’s air and sea blockade of Lebanon a “humiliation” Tuesday and demanded it be lifted. But Israel said it first needed assurances that forces deployed on the border can stop weapons shipments to Hezbollah.

Annan arrived in Israel as part of an 11-day Mideast tour intended to shore up the fragile cease-fire that ended 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, help Lebanon recover and secure the release of two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah on July 12 sparked the fighting.

“We need to resolve the issue of the abducted soldiers very quickly,” Annan said during a visit earlier Tuesday to a U.N. base in south Lebanon. “We need to deal with the lifting of the embargo – sea, land and air – which for the Lebanese is a humiliation and an infringement on their sovereignty.”

In Israel, Annan met with Defense Minister Amir Peretz and urged the blockade be lifted “as soon as possible in order to allow Lebanon to go on with normal commercial activities and also rebuild its economy.”

Israel has said it will allow free movement once it is assured the forces deployed on Lebanon’s borders can prevent Hezbollah from rearming itself. Israel wants international forces to help patrol the Lebanon-Syria border to enforce an arms embargo on Hezbollah. Lebanon says its troops can secure the border on their own.

Annan said the U.N. hoped to have 5,000 soldiers in the region by Friday. As part of the effort to get international troops on the ground quickly, a five-ship Italian fleet departed for Lebanon on Tuesday carrying 800 soldiers.

Annan was to meet today with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who plans to call for “the unconditional return of our captives in Lebanon,” said his spokeswoman Miri Eisin, referring to reserve soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. A third soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, was captured by Hamas-linked militants June 25 near the Gaza Strip.