By Anne Penketh
The UN secretary-general has fuelled speculation that a deal leading to the release of two Israeli prisoners may be in the offing as he embarked on a delicate 11-day mission to the Middle East.
Following talks with the Lebanese cabinet, Kofi Annan urged the Hizbollah to release the two prisoners to the care of the international Red Cross.
"I ... renew my call for the abducted soldiers to be freed and as a first step to be transferred under the auspices of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) either to the government of Lebanon or to a third party," he said. The seizure of the two soldiers on 12 July in a cross-border incursion sparked Israel's 34-day onslaught.
The UN chief also urged Israel to lift the naval and air blockade that has isolated Lebanon since the war began, as part of Israeli efforts aimed at stopping the Hizbollah's weapons supply.