Israeli air blockade is lifted, to the relief of Lebanese

Thursday, September 7th 2006, 10:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Israel said it lifted its nearly two-month-long air blockade of Lebanon on Thursday but kept its naval blockade in place until international forces can take over.

The lifting of the aerial blockade will bring a measure of relief to the war-stricken country and sets the first test for a U.N. peacekeeping force charged with keeping arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah.

Signaling the resumption of normal air traffic, a commercial flight by the national carrier Middle East Airlines circled downtown Beirut three times at 6:04 p.m., four minutes after the embargo was over, in a ceremonial show.

The flight, from Paris, then landed at Beirut's airport.

As it taxied down the runway, someone in the cockpit waved a large red-and-white Lebanese flag, with its distinctive green cedar tree emblem, out a window. It was followed by a Kuwait Airways plane, which also hung a Lebanese flag out its cockpit window.

``The aerial blockade has been removed. In coordination with the United Nations, the naval blockade will continue until the international naval force is in place,'' said Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israeli officials said the United Nations was still working out logistical issues, and they expected the problem to be resolved within 48 hours.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev confirmed that the army began lifting the embargo shortly after 6 p.m. He declined to say how long the pullback would take.

Israel had come under international pressure to lift the blockade, which threatened to derail a U.N. cease-fire that ended 34 days of fighting between Hezbollah and Israeli forces. The blockade hampered rebuilding efforts in Lebanon, which is almost completely dependent on imports, and business leaders said it cost the country about $50 million a day.

The Israeli army had strong reservations about lifting the blockade without linking it to the release of the captured soldiers, military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because their position contradicts that of the government.

There also was anger from the families of two soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah guerrillas on July 12 triggered the war. The families met Thursday with Olmert and criticized Israel's decision, saying he had failed to keep his promise to bring the servicemen home.

Israel had refused to end the restrictions until an international force was in place to prevent arms smuggling.

Olmert has faced a storm of criticism over his government's handling of the war, widely seen to have ended in success for Hezbollah, which stood up to more than a month of punishing Israeli bombardment.

U.N.. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who led the lengthy negotiations among Israel, Lebanon and Western nations that led to the partial end of the blockade, has said he would appoint a mediator for indirect talks between Israel and Hezbollah on the release of the soldiers, raising the possibility of a prisoner swap.

Germany is to post customs and border police experts at the Beirut airport to help monitor traffic through the facility. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived with the first group of experts to consult with Lebanese authorities.

German naval forces also will patrol the coast. The ships were expected to arrive off Lebanon within two weeks, and until then Italian, French, British and Greek warships will patrol.

The militant Shiite group is widely believed to have received weapons and other support from its backers, Syria and Iran.

The blockade hampered rebuilding efforts after the Israeli offensive that killed hundreds of Lebanese, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and ravaged bridges and other infrastructure. It caused severe fuel shortages in Lebanon, leading to long lines at gas stations and forcing the electric company to ration power.

Thousands of Lebanese families who fled the fighting are expected to return home before the start of the school year next month, and U.N. aid agencies welcomed Israel's announcement.

``The Lebanese are very entrepreneurial people, and it's obvious that when the blockade is lifted we can assume that commercial life will start again,'' said Christiane Berthiaume of the World Food Program.

In recent weeks, some supply ships had been allowed to dock after coordinating with Israel, easing the fuel crisis and allowing the electricity authority to lift some rationing.

Israel had also been allowing aid flights into Beirut's airport, as well as commercial flights by Middle East Airlines and Royal Jordanian _ but only coming from Amman, Jordan, an Arab country that has a peace treaty with Israel.

Workers at Rafik Hariri International Airport began preparing for full resumption of operations at dawn Thursday. The giant electronic board announcing flights arrivals and departures lit up and taxis began filing in. Runways bombed by Israel have been repaired since the cease-fire took effect Aug. 14.

Airlines from around the Arab world planned to resume flights Friday or Saturday, and Lufthansa said it was closely monitoring the situation and expected to act soon.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Lebanese leaders in Beirut and stressed the importance of the U.N. cease-fire resolution and the release of the Israeli soldiers before traveling to neighboring Syria, a close ally, Russian news agencies reported.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was expected to make a stop on the weekend during a Mideast tour, Lebanese media reported.

In southern Lebanon, meanwhile, Israeli troops continued their gradual withdrawal as international peacekeepers arrive.

Israeli troops left positions around seven villages in the hills northeast of the border town of Naqoura, and U.N. forces set up checkpoints. They would hand over the territory to Lebanese troops in the next 24 hours, a statement by peacekeepers said.

About 3,250 U.N. troops are in Lebanon, out of a planned force of 15,000. Annan said Thursday that the force should reach 5,000 by mid-September, strong enough for Israeli troops to withdraw completely.