Israel ends Lebanon air embargo

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon put on a boisterous show Thursday — with a low-flying passenger jet circling the capital — to celebrate the end of Israel’s air blockade.

But Israel said its closure of Lebanon’s ports will remain in force until international forces arrive to watch the seas.

Lebanon’s prime minister and Israeli officials said they expected the naval blockade to end within days, once French, Italian and Greek navy vessels start patrolling to prevent weapons shipments to Hizbollah.

Lebanese expressed joy and relief over the end of the nearly two-month-old air blockade. The sealing of the entry points by air and sea has stifled the country, which imports almost everything, and threatened to derail the UN-brokered ceasefire that ended 34 days of Israel-Hizbollah fighting.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government came under sharp criticism from the families of two captured Israeli soldiers, who said the lifting of the blockade hurt negotiating leverage to free them. Their capture by Hizbollah triggered Israel’s massive offensive on Lebanon.

After meeting with Olmert, relatives of the soldiers — Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev — accused the Israeli leader of caving in to international pressure.

“This is the second time the government has acted against the will of the people of Israel,” said Benny Regev, Eldad’s father. “The first was the ceasefire, and now it’s with the lifting of the blockade of Lebanon.” Since the ceasefire, Olmert repeatedly pledged to bring the men home safely, and UN chief Kofi Annan has appointed a mediator to handle indirect talks between Israel and Hizbollah. But Israel refused to negotiate a swap and Hizbollah insisted on a prisoner exchange.

In a symbolic act   signalling the resumption of normal air traffic, a commercial flight by Lebanon’s national carrier Middle East Airlines circled over downtown Beirut three times at 6:04pm (1504GMT), four minutes after the embargo ended, as fireworks erupted in the capital’s heart.

The plane, coming from Paris with 151 passengers aboard, then landed at Beirut airport. As it taxied, co-pilot waved out of cockpit  window a large red-and-white Lebanese flag, with its distinctive green cedar tree emblem. It was followed by a Kuwait Airways plane, which also hung a Lebanese flag out of its cockpit window, as other airline companies announced resumption of normal flights beginning Friday.

“This flight has a special flavour that cannot be described,” said Mohammed Tabash, a Lebanese passenger who has been in Paris for the last 10 days. “All of the passengers on this flight were overwhelmed with happiness.” “Lebanon is breathing again,” proclaimed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora in a televised statement, inviting the tens of thousands of Lebanese who fled the fighting and Arab tourists who left in droves “to come back to the Lebanon you love”.  He downplayed the sea blockade, expressing hope that issue would be resolved by Friday morning and that ships, too, can call on Lebanese ports.

Since the ceasefire began August 14, Israel has resisted international pressure to lift the blockade, saying it was necessary to prevent Hizbollah from rearming. It said it would end the blockade once international forces were guarding entry points.

The opening of the airport will be the first test for the UN peacekeeping force’s ability to keep out weapons.

German customs and border police experts arrived at the airport to advise the authorities on monitoring traffic.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also came to offer Berlin’s assistance.

German naval forces are also to 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.

But logistical issues held up the start of patrols by the combined naval force, prompting Israel to delay the end of the naval blockade, Israeli officials said. They said they expected the problem to be resolved within 48 hours. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue was an internal UN matter.

“We decided today in coordination with the commander of the UN troops in the Middle East… not to lift the naval blockade in Lebanon at this stage until the naval forces that are slated to continue this closure in our place arrive,” Olmert said in a statement issued by his office.

“I really hope that Italy’s, France’s and Greece’s naval forces… will organise quickly and that we can pull back when they take up positions,” he said.

France’s ships were still waiting for a letter of UN authorization to start patrols, which they expected soon, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said in Paris.

The blockade of Lebanon has hampered reconstrution and cost the country some $50 million a day. At one point the blockade caused severe fuel shortages in Lebanon, leading to long lines at gas stations and forcing the electric company to ration power.

But in recent weeks, it has been eroding. Some supply ships had been allowed to dock after coordinating with Israel. Israel had also been allowing aid flights into Beirut’s airport, as well as commercial flights by MEA and Royal Jordanian — but only coming from Amman, Jordan, an Arab country that has a peace treaty with Israel.

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

The land route to neighbouring Syria has already been reopened, with the Lebanese government posting thousands of troops along the rugged frontier to prevent smuggling.

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 UN forces set up checkpoints in the area. They would hand over the territory to Lebanese troops in the next 24 hours, a statement by peacekeepers said.

About 3,250 UN troops are now 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.

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