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Lebanese Defense Minister Warns Against Breaking Cease-Fire

Lebanon's defense minister said Sunday he is certain Hezbollah will not break the cease-fire but warned all militant groups of harsh measures and a traitor's fate if they incite Israeli retaliation by firing rockets into the Jewish state.

Defense Minister Elias Murr's strong remarks indicated concern that Syrian-backed Palestinian militants might try to restart the fighting by drawing retaliation from Israel.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, meanwhile, toured the devastated Hezbollah stronghold in south Beirut and decried the destruction by Israeli bombs as a "crime against humanity." Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shiite and Hezbollah backer, stood at the Sunni premier's side and said they spoke with one voice.

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In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would name a panel to investigate the military and government's performance during the war, which has been criticized by many Israelis as weak and indecisive.

A day after Israeli commandos staged a pre-dawn raid deep into Lebanon, prompting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to declare the Israelis in violation of the Security Council cease-fire resolution, no new clashes were reported.

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Residents in the mountains east of Beirut, however, described continued overflights by Israeli warplanes on the truce's seventh day.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Saturday's raid was aimed at disrupting arms shipments to Hezbollah and such operations may continue until international peacekeepers arrive to enforce an arms embargo.

"In the situation where there was a flagrant violation of the embargo, Israel had the right to act. Had there not been a violation, Israel would not have to respond," he said Sunday, expressing impatience with the slow international response in offering troops for the peacekeeping force.

Siding with Jerusalem, the U.S. government also said the Israeli raid underscored the importance of quickly deploying an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.

"We've seen the press reports and noted the Israeli statement saying that the operation was a reaction to arms smuggling," White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said, adding that preventing the resupply of weapons to Hezbollah by Syria and Iran is a key provision of the cease-fire plan.

The Lebanese defense minister insisted that Hezbollah would hold its fire.

"We consider that when the resistance (Hezbollah) is committed not to fire rockets, then any rocket that is fired from the Lebanese territory would be considered collaboration with Israel to provide a pretext (for Israel) to strike," Murr said.

He added that "the Lebanese army will decisively deal with" any attack on Israel and that anyone arrested for violating the truce "will be considered by the military tribunal as an agent of the Israeli enemy."

Murr did not repeat his threat of Saturday to stop the deployment of Lebanon's army in the south to protest Israel's helicopter-borne commando raid near the town of Boudai on the west side of the Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold.

Such a halt would be a blow to the U.N. cease-fire plan, which calls for the army and a strong U.N. peacekeeping force to police the truce and separate Israeli troops and Hezbollah's guerrillas.

Murr apparently was satisfied by a declaration from Annan warning Israel against a repeat of the raid.

Townspeople in Boudai said 300 residents grabbed guns after the Israeli raid began at 3 a.m. and fought at the side of 15 Hezbollah guerrillas for 90 minutes before the commandos retreated and were flown back to Israel. Residents said there were no casualties on the Lebanese side. One Israeli officer was killed and two soldiers were wounded.

Under the U.N. cease-fire that took effect a week ago Monday, Lebanon has started deploying 15,000 soldiers in its southern region, putting a government force there for the first time in four decades.

It is to be joined by an equal force of international peacekeepers, but wrangling among countries expected to send troops has delayed the mission and U.N. officials are pleading for nations to participate to bolster the fragile truce.

France, which commands the existing U.N. force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, on Sunday called for a meeting of European Union countries this week to determine the number of troops they are prepared to contribute to the U.N. mission.

"We are asking that Europe express its solidarity toward Lebanon as rapidly as possible," Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told radio Franco Info.

The Israeli prime minister complicated the effort with a reported decision Sunday to reject peacekeepers in Lebanon from countries that don't have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh — Muslim countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel — are among the only countries so far to have offered front-line troops for the expanded force.

The U.N. cease-fire resolution does not explicitly give Israel authority to block countries from joining the peacekeeping mission, but it does say the force should coordinate its activites with the Lebanese and Israeli governments.

Saniora, the prime minister, made his first visit Sunday to Hezbollah's south Beirut stronghold, where airstrikes wrecked whole neighborhoods.

"What we see today is an image of the crimes Israel has committed ... there is no other description other than a criminal act that shows Israel's hatred to destroy Lebanon and its unity," Saniora told reporters and television crews invited on the tour.

"I hope the international media transmits this picture to every person in the world so that it shows this criminal act, this crime against humanity," the Western-backed prime minister said.

While he visited, Hezbollah's operatives were still handing out bundles of $100 bills to people who lost homes to Israeli bombs — $12,000 for each claimant. The stipend is to pay a year's rent and refurnish homes.

Arab foreign ministers held an emergency meeting in Egypt, and Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmed Ben Heli said they would discuss setting up a fund to rebuild Lebanon, which lost an estimated 15,000 apartments, 140 bridges and other structures.

Diplomats said Arab governments wanted to counter the flood of Iranian money that is believed to be financing the Hezbollah handouts.

Iran, which is not an Arab nation, denied that Sunday. "Hezbollah is a legitimate body in Lebanon; they have their own economic resources and popular support there," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said in Tehran.

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