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Israel to Lift Its Blockade of Lebanon

International troops will monitor air and sea ports starting today. The move is expected to speed the war-torn nation's recovery.

September 07, 2006|Ken Ellingwood and Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — Israel said Wednesday that it would end its air and sea blockade of Lebanon today to make way for an international force to be deployed as part of a cease-fire that ended the 34-day war with Hezbollah.

The decision came after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan notified Israeli leaders that international troops were ready to take positions at Lebanon's airports and along the coast, a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.

Israeli officials said the U.S. and U.N. assurances convinced them that they could ease restrictions on the arrival and departure of ships and planes, an embargo they had said was aimed at preventing arms from reaching Hezbollah fighters.

"We said from the beginning that we'll be willing to lift our restrictions when the Lebanese government, augmented by the internationals, would be able to enforce the arms embargo," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "It's come together in a way today to give us the confidence to lift the restrictions."

The news was met with jubilation in Lebanon, where anxiety had been increasing because the embargo was hammering an economy already damaged by the war. The Lebanese government said the blockade cost the economy more than $20 million a day.

Lebanon sent a request to Annan for German navy ships to help patrol the Mediterranean Sea. The Lebanese army will monitor areas that border Syria for weapons smuggling, Lebanese Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat said.

"It's very important to show that with diplomatic pressure and with political action, we can have some solution in the Middle East," Fatfat said. "It's very important to show to the Arab nation and to the Lebanese population that there is another way besides war."

A German force was to arrive at Beirut's international airport Wednesday, the Israeli statement said. German ships are expected in two weeks. In the interim, Italian, French, British and Greek forces would be deployed, Israel said.

Annan had expressed confidence Tuesday that the blockade, imposed after the outbreak of fighting July 12, would be lifted within 48 hours.

Since the cease-fire took effect Aug. 14, Israel has approved passage to and from Lebanon for a limited number of ships and planes, Israeli officials said.

Commercial air travel slowed to a trickle, with only a few flights a day, all routed through Amman, Jordan. Lebanese fishermen languished on land, forbidden to sail.

Business owners fretted over shipments stuck in Turkey, Syria or Jordan. Blackouts, a problem in Lebanon in the best of times, grew more frequent as fuel supplies dwindled.

"It was contributing to higher costs, higher anxieties, delays," said Marwan Iskander, an economist. "It was constrictive. It made the country feel as if it was going to suffocate."

Annan had called repeatedly for an end to the blockade. He pressed Israeli leaders during a visit last week, but they said they would not let up until all provisions of the U.N. cease-fire resolution were carried out. The Security Council resolution includes a ban on the shipment of weapons into Lebanon that are not authorized by the Lebanese government.

Tarrad Hamadeh, Lebanon's labor minister and a Hezbollah supporter, said that asking U.N. forces to monitor the coast was dangerous because "it internationalizes even further our small country." But, he added, "since we live in a democracy and the majority of ministers voted for [the U.N.'s] help in controlling our sea, we will cooperate with the French and the Germans despite our reservations."

Regev said Israel remained concerned about weapons being smuggled to Hezbollah through Lebanon's border with Syria, which, with Iran, has been a key backer and arms supplier of the Islamic militant group.

"The big question is the Syrian-Lebanese border," Regev said.

Israeli ground forces have slowly withdrawn from southern Lebanon, giving way to Lebanese soldiers and a U.N. military force that will grow to as many as 15,000 troops under the terms of the Security Council resolution. Israel wants the international force to patrol the Lebanese-Syrian border, but Damascus opposes such a force along its frontier with Lebanon.

Israel remains wary of Syria's promise to honor the weapons embargo.

Annan, who met last week with Syrian President Bashar Assad, said Syria had committed to deploying a battalion along the border with Lebanon to enforce the U.N. resolution. Syrian officials have denied arming Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Lebanon toughened its stance on the two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah triggered the war. The cease-fire agreement called for the unconditional release of the soldiers. But Wednesday, Lebanon's foreign minister said the Israelis would be freed only if the two sides negotiated a prisoner swap.


Ellingwood reported from Jerusalem and Stack from Beirut. Special correspondent Raed Rafei in Beirut contributed to this report.

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