Lantos: Withhold Aid to Lebanon Until Troops Secure Border

U.S. congressman says Lebanon must take control of its borders with Syria, prevent arms smuggling to Hezbollah.

U.S. Representative Tom Lantos said Sunday that he would ask the U.S. administration to freeze the U.S. $230 million aid package to Lebanon proposed by President George W. Bush until the Lebanese government takes control of its borders with Syria and prevent arms smuggling to Hezbollah guerrillas.

Lantos, the top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, spoke after meeting with senior officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Lantos, from California, said he told Olmert that the U.S. aid package to Lebanon was important, "but that this package should be withheld until the Lebanese government displays responsibility," he said. "A porous Syrian-Lebanon border will only invite the repetition of Hezbollah attacks in the future. Hezbollah must not be allowed to rearm again."

A United Nations-brokered cease-fire that took effect August 14 stipulated the deployment of 15,000 Lebanese troops along the border with Israel, backed by a 15,000-strong UN force.

However, the cease-fire resolution only called on the Lebanese government to secure the border with Syria, saying the UN force could help, but only if asked by Lebanon. Defense Minister Amir Peretz told the Cabinet on Sunday that Israel expects the international community to control Lebanon's border crossings.

Lantos said he aimed to put a temporary hold on the aid package until the Syrian border was secured.

"My purpose is not to withhold aid from Lebanon, but to persuade the government of Lebanon that the closing of the Lebanon-Syria border to arm smuggling from Iran and Syria is in the prime national interest of the Lebanese," Lantos said. "My hold is a friendly hold. It is to persuade the Lebanese government that it is the time to do what it should have done five years ago."

Lantos also said he planned to propose legislation to get American aid for Israel as well.

"I told the prime minister that I'm in the process of drafting such legislation. It will be a bipartisan legislation," he said. "The point is well taken that Lebanon will receive and has received aid from the United States, Europe and the Arab countries. It would be singularly unfair in the wake of this disaster to have aid flown to one party which basically allowed the provocation and not to the other."