- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

BEIRUT — Israel yesterday lifted an air blockade of Lebanon imposed when it went to war with Hezbollah fighters eight weeks ago, and a Lebanese airliner landed at Beirut’s patched-up airport to mark the moment.

But Israel said a naval blockade would continue until an international force was deployed off the coast.

Lebanon has demanded a lifting of the blockade to enable it to speed reconstruction of bridges, homes, roads and factories devastated during the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The Middle East Airlines flight from Paris circled Beirut to celebrate the end of the air embargo after intense diplomacy led by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier emerged onto a balcony of a government building and waved at the low-flying plane.

A pilot held up Lebanon’s cedar flag from a cockpit window as the plane carrying 150 passengers taxied to a halt.

“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, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Mr. Siniora said he expected Israel to remove the sea blockade today. “There was a problem at the United Nations that is being resolved,” he told reporters. “I think that in the morning, God willing, this thing will be lifted.”

An Israeli official said the delay was because the United Nations was not ready to take over the task of coastal monitoring due to differences over who would be in charge.

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

Many countries have criticized the blockade, which Israel said was aimed at stopping Hezbollah from rearming, but which Lebanon saw as collective punishment.

Finance Minister Jihad Azour said the cost to trade activity alone had been about $45 million a day.

Israel bombed the Beirut airport and coastal radars and barred most shipping from Lebanese ports after Hezbollah captured two of its soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

Under the U.N. Security Council resolution that halted the war on Aug. 14, up to 15,000 U.N. troops are to join 15,000 Lebanese soldiers deploying in the south to secure a border zone free of any Israeli or armed Hezbollah presence.

Mr. Annan said Israel should withdraw completely by mid-September and should not wait for all 15,000 U.N. troops to arrive.

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