World Donors Pledge Over $900 Million to Rebuild Lebanon

World donors on Thursday nearly doubled the amount of money sought to help to rebuild Lebanon, with more $940 million pledged for early reconstruction efforts. Donors also called for Israel to lift its blockade of the country.

The amount was more than the $500 million that organizers of the donors' conference in Stockholm had requested to help Lebanon recover after monthlong fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

Adding previous pledges and commitments for longer-term reconstruction projects, organizers said a total of $1.2 billion had been made available to help the war-crippled country get back on its feet.

"The conference has thus met its objective with a wide margin," said Swedish Foreign Minister Jan Eliasson, the conference's host.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora thanked the 60 governments and aid organizations attending the conference for their contributions.

"This is a very important accomplishment that we have made today," a triumphant Saniora told reporters after the conference. "We will build on it."

He stressed that none of the aid offered at the conference was tied to any conditions.

"From day one we have not taken any support from any country, any institution that is linked to any condition," he said.

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Major pledges included $175 million from the United States and $54 million from the European Union. The U.S. figure was part of the $230 million offered by President George W. Bush last week, organizers said.

Earlier, Saniora firmly rejected suggestions that the aid money would trickle down to Hezbollah and strengthen the group's position in southern Lebanon.

"This idea, that it will be siphoned in one way or another to Hezbollah is entirely, completely, a fallacy. It is not true," he said.

Hezbollah is already offering hundreds of millions of dollars in aid — most of it apparently promised by Iran. And there are fears in the West that, unless donor countries provide significant amounts, sympathy for Hezbollah, Iran and Islamic radicals will grow dramatically as a result.

A statement issued at the end of the donors' conference called on Israel to end its air and sea blockade of Lebanon, saying it was "a major impediment to the early recovery process."

Israel has said it would only allow free movement after the U.N.-brokered cease-fire deal that halted the fighting takes full effect.

In his opening speech, Saniora told delegates that the direct damage of the conflict was in the "billions of dollars," while the indirect cost including lost tourism and industry revenue would cost billions more.

"Moreover, Lebanon's well-known achievements in 15 years of postwar development have been wiped out in a matter of days by Israel's deadly military machine," Saniora said.

Early recovery efforts would focus on finding housing for displaced families, rebuilding infrastructure, improving social services, cleaning up an oil spill of Lebanon's coast and clearing unexploded bombs.

Some research has estimated up to 70 percent of Israeli bombs failed to explode initially.

A Lebanese report said more than 50 people had been killed by such munitions after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire and that more than 4,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance had been destroyed. It estimated $4.1 million was needed to clear land mines, and unexploded cluster bombs.

U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said U.N. mine clearing teams estimate that there are more than 100,000 unexploded munitions on the ground.

"They are shocked at seeing how many unexploded, bombs, grenades, mines and especially cluster bomblets there are," he said. "Most of these were thrown into southern Lebanon by the Israeli defense forces in the last three days of the war.

"It was wrong, it should never have happened, and we are now paying a big price for that in human lives."

Lebanese Economy Minister Sami Haddad said the most urgent need was 10,000 prefabricated houses for families whose homes were destroyed by Israeli bombing.

The fighting started July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border at Aita al-Shaab, killed three Israeli soldiers and seized two others.

The attack provoked a fierce onslaught from Israel, which pounded Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon as well as key infrastructure for more than a month.

Large sections of southern Lebanon and whole neighborhoods south of Beirut were left in ruins. An estimated 1 million people fled their homes.

Saniora said his government was not in contact with the Israeli government about a possible exchange of prisoners. But he said his government was interested in seeing two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah returned in exchange for the release of Lebanese detainees.

"I hope the Israeli government will respond to the call of reason so that we can finish with this and everybody will return to his home," he said.