Israel partially lifts Lebanon blockade

Israel has lifted its air blockade of Lebanon, but said that a naval siege would remain until an international force was deployed off the Lebanese coast.

    A Middle East Airlines plane landed in Beirut at 6.11pm (file)

    Israeli officials had said on Wednesday that the eight-week blockade would be lifted at 1500 GMT on Thursday as international forces took up "control positions" over Lebanon's air and sea ports.

    Miri Eslin, a spokeswoman for the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, later said: "The aerial blockade has been removed.

    "In co-ordination with the United Nations, the naval blockade will continue until the international naval force is in place."


      
    Israel had begun to co-ordinate with UN troops in Lebanon on the lifting of the restrictions 24 hours earlier, she said.

    Not ready

    Italian and French naval vessels had been expected to begin patrolling the coast until a German-led naval contingent takes over in line with a Lebanese request to the UN.

    An Israeli official said the delay was because "the UN was not ready to receive" the task of coastal monitoring due to differences over who would be in charge of the operation.

    Many countries have criticised the blockade, which Israel said was aimed at stopping Hezbollah from rearming after the 34-day war, but which Lebanon saw as collective punishment.

    Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, said the end of the blockade marked the last chapter in Israel's war against Lebanon.

    "This blockade tried to shake the Lebanese people's right to live freely and the Israelis, filled with hatred, wanted to strangle the country and its economy in violation of UN Security Council's Resolution 1701," said Berri.

    Fireworks

    A Lebanese civilian airliner flying directly from Paris circled Beirut before landing, marking the lifting of the Israeli air blockade, airport sources said.

    They said the Middle East Airlines plane carrying 150 passengers touched down at 6.11pm (1511 GMT).

    Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, along with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the visiting German foreign minister,  emerged onto a balcony of a government building and waved at the low-flying plane.

    A pilot waved Lebanon's cedar flag from a cockpit window as the plane taxied to a halt and the sound of fireworks echoed across Beirut.

    Israel had allowed some commercial aircraft to land at Beirut airport earlier in the week, despite the blockade remaining in place, but most were kept away.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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