Israel lifts sea blockade of Lebanon, plans to have all its troops out in two weeks

Friday, September 8th 2006, 8:49 am
By: News On 6

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Israel lifted its sea blockade of Lebanon on Friday, ending the country's two months of isolation as the task of preventing the entry of Hezbollah weapons falls to international warships patrolling offshore.

In a further boost to peace efforts, Israel also said it plans to pull the last of its troops out of Lebanon within two weeks.

The sea blockade's end, which came a day after Israel dropped its restrictions on air travel into Lebanon, lifts a barrier that has stifled Lebanon and cost the country tens of millions of dollars as it tries to rebuild from the devastating 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah.

``The blockade has seriously undermined the Lebanese economy and it is high time for it to end so as to allow the people to get back to their business,'' Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, said.

Even before the formal announcement, a Lebanese cargo ship docked at Beirut's port, carrying industrial raw materials, ceramic tiles and appliances _ the first commercial ship to land since the war began July 12.

Lebanon's resumption of control over its sea and skies was the latest boost in implementing the U.N.-brokered cease-fire that began Aug. 14.

The focus now shifts to the complicated process of withdrawing Israeli troops from southern Lebanon and replacing them with 15,000 Lebanese soldiers and a similar number of U.N. peacekeepers who are to maintain a border buffer zone free of Hezbollah weapons.

Israel has been gradually pulling out its soldiers _ whose number peaked at 30,000 at the war's end _ as international replacements move into place.

The Israeli army would not say exactly how many of its soldiers remain, citing security reasons, but a spokeswoman said the military held only about 25 percent of the ground in southern Lebanon that it did previously.

When the fighting ended, Israeli soldiers were present in a strip along the length of the Lebanon-Israel border and in a corridor of territory leading nearly 18 miles north to the Litani River.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been pressing Israel to pull out all its soldiers once 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers are on the ground by mid-September. About 3,250 U.N. soldiers are already in Lebanon.

On Thursday, Israeli security officials said the target was to have Israel's remaining troops out by the Jewish New Year, which begins the evening of Sept. 22.

Hezbollah fighters have been lying low, with armed guerrillas rarely seen in towns and villages of the south. In one rare sighting, some witnesses said they saw Hezbollah fighters on motorbikes inspecting a recently evacuated Israeli position.

The U.N. resolution that set up the cease-fire calls for the eventual disarmament of Hezbollah's Shiite guerrillas, but the peacekeeping force does not have a mandate to search out weapons and take them.

That job is up to the Lebanese army, Annan says, but Lebanon has not said whether it will do so. It appeared the peacekeepers will aim to ensure that guerrillas are not seen in public with weapons and that no new arms are moved in.

The withdrawal and deployment process is a delicate one. U.N. peacekeepers are effectively the go-betweens, checking with Israelis to ensure they have pulled out of each area before Lebanese soldiers move in, to ensure there is no friction between them.

``We'd much rather avoid them,'' a Lebanese officer said Friday as peacekeepers farther down the road announced they had received clearance for hundreds of Lebanese soldiers to proceed into a corner of southwest Lebanon.

Dozens of camouflaged Lebanese military trucks with a few vintage jeeps and armored vehicles lined a busy coast road in Mansouri, about 10 miles north of the border with Israel. The trucks were stacked with chairs, kitchen utensils and water supplies as the troops move into another area from which the Lebanese army has been absent for decades.

Hezbollah held control in the south for years, effectively running a state within a state, but the new deployment of Lebanese soldiers and U.N. troops reins in its domination.

With the lifting of the sea blockade, U.N. troops now face their first test in preventing weapons getting to Hezbollah, which is believed to get its arsenal from Iran and Syria. Lebanese troops are in place on the border with Syria to prevent smuggling.

A combined task force of French, Italian and Greek warships began patrolling Lebanon's Mediterranean coast just after noon Friday, a mission it will carry out for about two months until a longer-term force of German vessels moves in.

``The Italian-led task force will continue to enforce the international embargo against the supply of armaments to Hezbollah,'' Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said, announcing the end of the Israeli blockade.

French military officials said a dozen vessels could take part in the initial operation, patrolling six miles off the coast while Lebanese military vessels operate closer to shore.

International officials are also helping Lebanese authorities at ports, land border crossings and Beirut's airport, keeping an eye out to ensure no arms slip through.