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Israel Lifts Naval Blockade of Lebanon

Retrieved from Naharnet on September 8, 2006

Israel lifted its naval blockade of Lebanon on Friday after European warships began patrolling the Lebanese coast to keep out weapons shipments for Hizbullah, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon said.

Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, the force's French commander, said he was informed by Israeli officials, and by the Italian commander leading the naval task force, that the blockade had ended after nearly two months.


The international task force began operating off the Lebanese coast just after noon Friday, officials said.


"The force is now operational and I understand that the (Israeli) naval blockade is lifted," Pellegrini said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press.


Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said she didn't have immediate confirmation that the final order had been given to Israeli forces to end the blockade off Lebanon's ports. But she said earlier Friday that the blockade would end within hours.


"The sea and air blockade has ended," said Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, whose country is leading the naval force tasked with preventing weapons smuggling to Hizbullah.


The move came amid a flurry of intensive international diplomacy in the region aimed at shoring up the three-week-old UN-brokered truce in Lebanon and pushing for a revival of the stalled Middle East peace process.


A source in the office of Premier Fouad Saniora said the force of French, Italians and Greeks began surveillance of the Lebanese coast at 12:30 pm.


It followed Israel's lifting of an air embargo on Thursday, finally ending a blockade that had remained in place despite a UN-brokered ceasefire on August 14 that halted a month-long conflict between Israel and Hizbullah.


Israel had slapped the cordon around Lebanon on July 13, a day after launching its massive offensive following Hizbullah's capture of two Israeli soldiers in a deadly cross-border attack.


German forces are later expected to lead the international naval patrols, while UN chief Koki Annan said that as many as 5,000 UN peacekeepers were due to deploy in Lebanon by mid-September.


In Beirut, the country's only international airport was bustling with activity as business gradually returned to normal although the port was awaiting a full end to the restrictions.


"Everything is going normally today, like before the war," said Mohammed Chihab el-Din, deputy manager at Rafik Hariri International Airport, whose runways were bombed by Israel at the start of its offensive.


Israel said it plans to complete the troop pullout from Lebanon envisaged in the UN resolution within two weeks.


"Israel's intention is to exit as soon as possible from the moment the coordination between Israel and the international forces is complete," Defense Minister Amir Peretz's office quoted him as saying.


"We have no intention of staying in Lebanon," said Peretz, whose government has come under fire in Israel for his handling of the 34-day war, particularly the failure to crush Hizbullah or retrieve the two captive soldiers.


The Russian is holding talks in Israel along with his German and Italian counterparts, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair is due in on Saturday before a visit to Lebanon on Monday.(AP-AFP)