updated 8/31/2006 2:09:55 PM ET 2006-08-31T18:09:55

World donors on Thursday pledged more than $940 million for early reconstruction efforts in Lebanon and many called on Israel to lift a blockade of the country.

The amount was nearly double the $500 million that organizers of the donors’ conference had requested to help Lebanon recover from weeks of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas.

Adding previous pledges and commitments for longer-term reconstruction projects, organizers said a total of $1.2 billion had been promised to help Lebanon 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.”

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 Bush last week, organizers said.

Many delegates, with the notable exception of the United States, called for Israel to lift it air, sea and land blockade, which Saniora called “inhuman.”

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

Hezbollah 'fallacy'
The prime minister rejected suggestions that the aid money would trickle down to Hezbollah and strengthen its position in southern Lebanon.

“This idea, that it will be siphoned in one way or another to Hezbollah is entirely, completely, a fallacy,” he said.

Hezbollah is already offering hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, most of it apparently promised by Iran, prompting fears in the West that unless donor countries provide significant help, support for Hezbollah and Iran will grow dramatically.

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

“Lebanon’s well-known achievements in 15 years of postwar development have been wiped out in a matter of days,” Saniora said.

Early recovery efforts are to focus on housing displaced families, rebuilding infrastructure, improving social services, cleaning up an oil spill off Lebanon’s coast and clearing unexploded bombs.

10,000 homes needed
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 the two Israeli soldiers returned in exchange for 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.

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