ALEXANDRIA: Israel should lift its blockade of Lebanon within 48 hours, UN chief Kofi Annan said Tuesday in Egypt as he stepped up efforts to release Israeli prisoners and shore up a fragile truce in Lebanon. Annan s announcement of an imminent end to the crippling nearly eight-week air and sea blockade was the latest result obtained by the UN secretary general on his marathon tour of the Middle East. On Monday, Qatar became the first Arab country to pledge troops to a UN peacekeeping force for Lebanon and the UN secretary general said he had appointed a mediator to secure the release of two Israeli soldiers, whose capture by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia sparked a month-long war. In Egypt on the latest leg of his whistle-stop tour of the Middle East, Annan was asked by reporters after meeting President Hosni Mubarak if he expected Israel to lift its blockade of Lebanon. Yes, within 48 hours, he answered. Because we are all working very hard and with a bit of goodwill and reasonableness, we should be able to resolve it within the next 48 hours. Israel imposed its air and sea blockade on Lebanon shortly after unleashing its 34-day offensive against Hezbollah on July 12, saying it was aimed at preventing the Shiite militia from receiving weapons. The Jewish state has said the blockade would be lifted once an UN-brokered truce that went into effect on August 14 has been implemented fully under Security Council Resolution 1701. Among other things, the resolution calls for Hezbollah to be disarmed and for the unconditional release of the two captive soldiers. Annan said both Israel and Hezbollah had agreed to negotiate the release of the two servicemen and announced he had appointed a mediator to secure a deal. I m hopeful that my facilitator will be able to work expeditiously with the parties to come forward with an acceptable solution for both parties, Annan said in Alexandria. Hezbollah is demanding that Israel release Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the soldiers but the Jewish state made it clear it would not negotiate directly with the Shiite movement, which it considers a terrorist organization. Israel sees the Lebanese government and the UN, within the framework of Resolution 1701, as the only ones responsible for the unconditional release of the kidnapped soldiers, an Israeli spokeswoman said. In an interview published Tuesday by the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said his militants would not disarm, as demanded by the UN resolution, but promised they would only use their weapons if Israel attacked. The Resistance (the armed wing of Hezbollah) will only use its rockets in case of an Israeli attack and war against Lebanon, he said. More than 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, in the 34-day conflict. Annan also met Foreign Minister Abul-Gheit Tuesday and was expected to hold further talks with Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. His discussions had been expected to focus on the fate of a third Israeli soldier abducted on June 25 by Gaza militant groups, including the armed wing of the governing Palestinian movement Hamas. Abul-Gheit told reporters Monday that the release of the soldier, whose capture sparked a massive Israeli military onslaught on the Gaza Strip and caused the territory s closure, could be a matter of hours or days. An Israeli newspaper reported Sunday that Egypt was mediating a deal whereby Israel could release up to 800 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the Israeli corporal. Quoting unnamed security officials, Israel s mass-selling Yediot Aharonot said Israel would release the prisoners in three stages and that the negotiations were being held up over the timetable of the prisoner release. Besides Saudi Arabia, Annan has already visited Qatar, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Syria and Iran as part of his regional tour. He is due in Turkey later Tuesday after his talks in Egypt. In Doha on Monday, Annan secured Qatar s agreement to contribute troops to the UN peacekeeping force being deployed in south Lebanon, the first Arab nation to do so although several Muslim states have offered help. The troop pledge was intended to tell the world that there is an Arab presence, however small, and to say to Israel that we believe in this resolution and that we want to implement it, Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani said. So far the bulk of the force, which could eventually include as many as 15,000 troops, is made up of European soldiers, with Italy and France contributing the largest contingents.