Lebanese Soldiers Block Weapons Smugglers' Routes

A mile from the Syrian border, one Lebanese armored personnel carrier was freshly dug in behind red earthen berms Saturday. A second was draped with camouflage netting.

Soldiers in new uniforms checked vehicles traveling the lane that winds through the mountains.

The curving track — climbing through vineyards, heavy-laden in late August, and newly harvested peach orchards — was cratered in two places by Israeli missiles fired in the first days of the monthlong war with Hezbollah.

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Gravel in some places, crumbling asphalt in others, the road traces the contours of the rugged Anti-Lebanon range and once served as a major route for gunrunners bringing in arms for the militant Shiite guerrillas.

"Since we got here two weeks ago we believe we've stopped 90 percent of the smuggling from Syria," boasted a Lebanese army captain, who would not give his name because he was under orders not to speak to the media.

The Lebanese army is rushing troops to the country's porous borders, because Israel has said it won't lift its air and sea blockade of the country until the frontier is clamped shut and new arms are not flowing to Hezbollah fighters from their benefactors in Syria and Iran.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has even demanded that the expanded U.N. peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon put its soldiers along the mountainous frontier to patrol the four official crossings and 60 illegal ones that had been unpoliced, like the one near Aita al-Foukhar.

Syrian President Bashar Assad said such a move would be considered "hostile." And Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said his army was up to the task and has balked at, but not outright refused, the Israeli demand.

"We have no intention of showing any hostility toward Syria," Saniora said late last week. "We want cordial relations with Syria and we are taking care of the issue of the border to prevent any infiltration into Lebanon."

Saniora has pleaded with the United States to pressure Israel to lift the blockade, and his office issued a statement Saturday saying Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had telephoned to say she would do her best and agreed that Lebanese forces should police the border.

French President Jacques Chirac , who has pledged 2,000 soldiers to the U.N. force that was to grow to 15,000, said the U.N. mandate does not call for policing the Syrian border. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the troops would take up positions there only if invited by the Lebanese government.

So, for now, Lebanon has sought to place its soldiers at key positions near illegal crossing points. U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen has said 2,000 Lebanese soldiers have been deployed so far along Lebanon's eastern border with Syria, with the goal of eventually having 8,600 there.

At the Masnaa crossing in the Bekaa Valley, the main border point on the highway from Beirut to Damascus, extra soldiers were deployed and long lines of trucks were backed up in each direction, awaiting customs clearance.

Lebanese border police and customs officials hotly denied they allowed weapons from Syria to cross the border and showed a visiting reporter the careful searches they were conducting. But Lebanese residents familiar with the border said the right amount of money in the right hands expedited the procedure for truckers with questionable cargo.

Two dirt tracks leading into the hills flanking the highway through no man's land between the Lebanese and Syrian sides of the crossing were still unobstructed. A border policeman, however, said army posts had been established a few hundred yards off the highway to block smugglers from detouring around the official crossing. He would not give his name because he was under orders not to speak to reporters.

The smugglers' route passes through Aita al-Foukhar, a mainly Christian village with two Greek Catholic churches and one mosque. At the east end of town, two missile craters were filled in and cars passed slowly over the rough patch. Nearby was a blue Volkswagen beetle, its roof ripped back like the lid on a tuna can.

Fifteen-year-old Michel Samaan, a villager, had been driving the car when an Israeli missile tore into it. He was killed instantly. His father and 11-year-old brother survived but were badly wounded. To look at the car it was hard to imagine how anyone escaped alive.

Henri Mouaikel, a 25-year-old cousin of the dead young driver stood nearby. He had just driven from Beirut and was recording video of the wreckage on Saturday. He said his cousin was killed at 3 p.m. on July 18, the seventh day of the war, as Israeli jets were bombing and rocketing roads like the one that snakes through Aita al-Foukhar to the Syrian frontier.

"I just can't believe an old blue Volkswagen was mistaken for a gunrunner," he said. "I hope he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, that it was a mistake."

Youngsters at a nearby house handed out juicy green grapes to visitors. Mouaikel shook his head, got into his green Toyota and headed back the 42 miles to the capital.

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