Israel to lift blockade of Lebanon

Air, sea restrictions ease to make way for international force

September 07, 2006|By Ken Ellingwood and Megan K. Stack | Ken Ellingwood and Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Israel's government said yesterday that it would end its air and maritime blockade of Lebanon today to make way for an international force that is to deploy as part of a cease-fire that ended the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

Israel's decision came after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan notified Israeli leaders that the international force was ready to take positions at Lebanon's airports and along the coast, according to a statement from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office.

Israeli officials said those assurances convinced them that Israel could ease its restrictions on the arrival and departure of ships and airplanes, an embargo it has 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 Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "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 has been growing as the economic damage of the war was compounded by the lockdown.

The Lebanese government sent a formal request to Annan for German naval ships to help patrol the Mediterranean Sea. The Lebanese army will be charged with monitoring the Syrian border for signs of weapon smuggling, said Lebanese Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat.

"It's very important to show that with diplomatic pressure and with political action we can have some solution in the Middle East," he 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 team was to arrive at Beirut International Airport yesterday, the Israeli statement said. The German naval forces were not due to arrive for two weeks, but Italian, French, British and Greek forces would deploy until then, Israel said.

The Associated Press reported that British Mediterranean Airways resumed commercial passenger flights to Beirut yesterday, becoming the first Western carrier to break Israel's air blockade of Lebanon. The British flight, which originated at London's Heathrow Airport, landed at Beirut airport at 9:30 p.m., according to the AP.

Since the cease-fire took effect Aug. 14, Israel has approved a limited number of ships and flights into and out of Lebanon despite the blockade, its officials said. But the embargo still cost the economy more than $20 million a day, the Lebanese government said.

Commercial air travel had slowed to a trickle, with the only a handful of flights a day, all of them routed through the airport in Amman, Jordan. The fishermen of Lebanon's storied coast had languished on dry land, forbidden to sail into the sea to make their living.

Business owners fretted over shipments stuck in Turkey, Syria or Jordan. Blackouts, a perpetual 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 and head of a research firm. "It was constrictive. It made the country feel as if it was going to suffocate."

But Regev said that Israel remained concerned about the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah through Lebanon's border with Syria, which along with Iran has been a key backer and supplier of the Shiite group.

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

Israeli ground forces have slowly withdrawn from southern Lebanon, giving way to Lebanese army soldiers and a U.N. military force that is to be expanded to up to 15,000 troops under the terms of the Security Council resolution. Israel wants the international force to patrol against cross-border smuggling, but Syria opposes deploying such a force along its border with Lebanon.

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

Ken Ellingwood and Megan K. Stack write for the Los Angeles Times.

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