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Israel to lift blockade of Lebanese air and sea ports on Thursday

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel said it will lift its sea and air blockade of Lebanon on Thursday as it faced widespread international pressure more than three weeks after a cease-fire took effect, ending a bloody monthlong conflict with Hezbollah guerrillas.

A statement from the Prime Minister's Office said Wednesday that international forces would replace the Israelis at command positions over Lebanese seaports and airports.

Israel imposed the air, land and sea blockade shortly after the 34-day war against the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah erupted on July 12.

In practical terms, the lifting of the blockade will allow Lebanon to begin rebuilding and resuming normal trade and life much more quickly. The blockade also had become something of a symbolic thorn across the Arab world, and its removal was likely to help decrease tensions.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has been working to get the blockade lifted since a U.N.-brokered cease-fire went into effect on Aug. 14, but Israel had maintained that the blockade was necessary to prevent new arms shipments to the Islamic militant group.

Hezbollah pelted Israel with almost 4,000 rockets during the war. Israel charged that Syria and Iran were supplying Hezbollah with its weapons, using air, sea and land routes.

The announcement was an important breakthrough _ proving that Israel and Lebanon could work with the help of mediators to reach deals on unresolved issues. It also raised some hope for possible deals on the more contentious question of releasing prisoners.

The conflict erupted after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel and attacked an Israeli army patrol, capturing two Israeli soldiers. In response, Israel launched a large-scale offensive, with its warplanes bombing Hezbollah strongholds and Lebanese infrastructure.

Some 3,250 U.N. forces are now in Lebanon, and U.N. officials expect that figure to reach 5,000 troops by late next week. The U.N. resolution calls for a beefed-up force of up to 15,000 peacekeepers, who will help police the border with Israel with a similar number of Lebanese troops.

In the statement, Israel says it will leave its command posts at various ports at 6 p.m. Thursday (11 a.m. EDT) and be replaced immediately by international forces. German experts are to arrive at Beirut airport later Wednesday, the statement said.

German naval forces are also expected to arrive within two week to deploy on the Lebanese coast . Until the German troops arrive, Italian, French, British and Greek troops will carry out their task, the statement said.

The statement said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Annan informed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Wednesday that the international troops were ready to move in.

Earlier in the day, Annan said hoped the blockade would be lifted within two days.

``Israel will be ready to lift the restrictions when the Lebanese government augmented by international forces will be ready to enforce the arms embargo on Hezbollah,'' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. ``If they are ready, we will be ready.''

Annan, who was wrapping up a trip to the region with a visit to Turkey, also urged Hezbollah militants based in southern Lebanon to disarm, and he renewed a call for an Israeli troop pullout from Lebanon, calling it ``crucial'' to peacekeeping efforts.

His comments came a day after Turkey agreed to send troops to Lebanon, becoming the first Muslim country with diplomatic relations to Israel to join the U.N. force.

Annan called the Turkish decision ``a sign of international solidarity.''
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