- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

BEIRUT [-] Israel said it lifted its nearly two-month-long air blockade of Lebanon today but kept its naval blockade in place until international forces can take over.

The lifting of the aerial blockade will bring a measure of relief to the war-stricken country and sets the first test for a U.N. peacekeeping force charged with keeping arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah.

Signaling the resumption of normal air traffic, a commercial flight by the national carrier Middle East Airlines circled downtown Beirut three times in a ceremonial show at 6:04 p.m., four minutes after the embargo was over.

The flight, from Paris, then landed at Beirut’s airport.

As it taxied down the runway, someone in the cockpit waved a large red-and-white Lebanese flag, with its distinctive green cedar tree emblem, out a window. It was followed by a Kuwait Airways plane, which also hung a Lebanese flag out its cockpit window.

“The aerial blockade has been removed. In coordination with the United Nations, the naval blockade will continue until the international naval force is in place,” said Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israeli officials said the United Nations was still working out logistical issues and they expected the problem to be resolved within 48 hours.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev confirmed that the army began lifting the embargo shortly after 6 p.m. He declined to say how long the pullback would take.

Israel had come under international pressure to lift the blockade, which threatened to derail a U.N. cease-fire that ended 34 days of fighting between Hezbollah and Israeli forces. The blockade hampered rebuilding efforts in Lebanon, which is almost completely dependent on imports, and business leaders said it cost the country about $50 million a day.

The Israeli army had strong reservations about lifting the blockade without linking it to the release of the captured soldiers, military officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because their position contradicts that of the government.

There also was anger from the families of two soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah guerrillas on July 12 triggered the war. The families met today with Mr. Olmert and criticized Israel’s decision, saying he had failed to keep his promise to bring the servicemen home.

Israel had refused to end the restrictions until an international force was in place to prevent arms smuggling.

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