Air blockade of Lebanon lifted, Israel maintains its hold on sea

September 08, 2006|By Megan K. Stack and Laura King | Megan K. Stack and Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A passenger plane swept over downtown Beirut and sliced along the Mediterranean coast yesterday afternoon, marking the end of an Israeli-imposed air blockade that had isolated Lebanon for weeks.

But a sea blockade remained in force. Israel vowed to keep control of its neighbor's waters until the Lebanese military and international forces were in place to prevent seaborne weapons smuggling.

The Middle East Airlines flight from Paris landed at Beirut's airport just minutes after Israel relinquished its hold on Lebanon's skies.

A land, sea and sky blockade had continued to hammer Lebanon's floundering economy for the past three weeks, even after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire agreement put a stop to this summer's fighting between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah.

In a televised address, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Israel would relinquish control over his nation's waters today. There was a final-hour complication with the United Nations, he said.

"Be sure the embargo will be lifted," Siniora said. "It's a small problem at night, and I think that in the morning, God willing, this thing will be lifted."

Lebanon had appealed to the United Nations for help in controlling the seas. Italian and French vessels were expected to begin patrolling Lebanese waters this week and to monitor the coast until German forces could take control.

Israel lifted the air embargo because the Lebanese army and international forces "are ready to effectively prevent illicit weapons shipments coming to Hezbollah," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

"At the seaports and at sea, unfortunately, there's a situation whereby you don't have a presence of Lebanese or international forces to successfully enforce the arms embargo," Regev said. "The minute they are ready, we will be able to lift the sea restrictions."

Earlier, Israeli officials speaking on condition of anonymity were quoted as saying they hoped to be able to lift the naval blockade within 48 hours. Later, they said it would depend on how quickly the international force and the Lebanese army were able to secure the coastline.

"From our point of view, the sooner the better," said Regev.

The easing of Israel's embargo on Lebanon without tangible gains for Israel was a source of frustration to the families of the two Israeli soldiers seized by Hezbollah in the July 12 cross-border raid that ignited the conflict.

Their well-publicized disappointment could magnify the political problems of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose government is already weathering heavy criticism over its handling of the war.

"If lifting the blockade was indeed so important to Lebanon, what is their problem with giving us a sign of life in return?" Shlomo Goldwasser, the father of missing soldier Ehud Goldwasser, asked on Army Radio. "What is so difficult?"

No proof has yet been provided that the missing reservists, Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, are alive.

Earlier, Olmert had promised indirectly that the embargo would not end until the captives were released.

His office said in a statement issued hours before the easing of the blockade that Israel was under heavy international pressure to allow for the move in order to help with the reconstruction of Lebanon.

Megan K. Stack and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.

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