Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Israel to lift Lebanon blockade on Thursday

Israel to lift Lebanon blockade on Thursday
By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent (REUTERS)

Israel said on Wednesday it would lift an eight-week-old air and sea blockade against Lebanon on Thursday, handing over control to international forces. Shortly after the announcement, Lebanon formally asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- who brokered the end of the blockade -- to authorize the deployment of German naval ships to monitor the Lebanese coast.
French, Italian and Greek naval ships are expected to be deployed until Germany takes over the sea patrols. Israel said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been told by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Annan that "international forces are ready to take over control posts over the sea ports and airports of Lebanon." "Thus it was agreed that tomorrow at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT), Israel will leave the control positions over the ports in conjunction with the entry of the international forces," a statement from Olmert's office said. Israel imposed the embargo, bombing Beirut airport and denying ships access to Lebanese ports, a day after Hizbollah captured two of its soldiers on July 12 and sparked a war that was halted by a U.N.-brokered truce nearly five weeks later. Lebanon had vowed to bust the blockade if it was not lifted by Friday. In a sign the end of the embargo was i mminent, British Airways said it was resuming direct flights to Beirut after the British government gave assurances it would be safe to do so. Lebanon's Middle East Airlines and Royal Jordanian began flying regularly into the capital last month, but have complied with Israel's insistence all such flights go via Amman. Qatar Airways resumed direct flights to Beirut on Monday. Israel said it reserved the right to take action to stop any arms smuggling across the Syrian border to the Lebanese Hizbollah guerrilla group until full implementation of the U.N. Security Council resolution that ushered in the August 14 truce. "We will continue to supervise to see that no weapons arrive through the Syrian-Lebanese border," Miri Eisin, a spokesman for Olmert, told Reuters. "We see international forces as the best solution ... Until there is an accepted solution to the way (the U.N. Security Council ban on arms shipments) can be implemented, Israel will continue to act in self-defence to make sure no arms arrive."

Lebanon's Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday the two Israeli soldiers held by Hizbollah would not be released unless there were talks with Israel about a prisoner swap. Israel says the main violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution is Hizbollah's failure to free the two soldiers. "A continution of this violation will have consequences," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "The Lebanese government has formally accepted (the resolution). They must act and follow through on their commitment which calls for an immediate and unconditional release of our servicemen." Annan said he would send an envoy to the region to work on the issue before the end of the week. Two Lebanese soldiers were killed and a third was wounded in the south as they tried to defuse an Israeli land mine. Alexander Ivanko, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, said protests had been lodged with Israel on Tuesday over truce violations. Hundreds of youths clashed with riot police in Turkey's capital Ankara, protesting against parliament's decision to send soldiers to Lebanon. The parliament voted on Tuesday to contribute non-combat troops to the U.N. force, due to be beefed up from its pre-war 2,000 to 15,000. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who met Annan in Ankara, declined to say how many troops would go but officials have said the number was unlikely to exceed 1,000. Israeli troops withdrew from nine more border posts they had occupied in the war, Lebanese security sources said. Annan has said Israel should complete its pullout once 5,000 U.N. troops were on the ground. The U.N. force now numbers 3,100. A French battalion with tanks and artillery is due next week and another Italian contingent is set to be deployed.

(Additional reporting by Beirut, Jerusalem, Ankara, Cairo and Paris bureaux)

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