Friday, September 08, 2006

Israel lifts Lebanon blockade

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israel lifted its eight-week sea blockade of Lebanon on Friday after an interim maritime task force led by an Italian admiral deployed off the Lebanese coast, the commander of U.N. peacekeepers said.

"The force is now operational and I understand that the naval blockade is lifted," UNIFIL head Major-General Alain Pellegrini said in a statement.

"The blockade has seriously undermined the Lebanese economy and it is high time for it to end so as to allow the people to get back to their businesses."

There was no immediate comment from Israeli officials. The Jewish state had earlier said it was coordinating the handover of control of the coast to U.N. forces under Pellegrini.

Lebanon has demanded a lifting of the blockade to enable it to speed reconstruction of bridges, homes, roads and factories devastated during a 34-day war between Israel and Hizbollah.
An Italian admiral will command the interim force until a UNIFIL naval task force is deployed. UNIFIL said it had established a naval operations center to coordinate all operational details.
A UNIFIL spokesman said four Italian ships were currently supporting the Lebanese navy in monitoring Lebanon's territorial waters.

A Lebanese government source said earlier UNIFIL informed Beirut that it took over control of the coast at 12:30 p.m. (0930 GMT) and that the blockade was lifted at that time.
"French, Greek and Italian ships will monitor our waters till the Germans arrive," the source said.

Israel ended an air embargo on Lebanon on Thursday but held back at the last minute from allowing free shipping movement, saying the naval blockade would be lifted only when ships of an international force were deployed.

"An Italian admiral is assuming control of the U.N. mandate on the basis of a request by the Lebanese," Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema told a joint news conference with Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni in Tel Aviv.

"I think the blockade is ending, air and sea."

Livni said the lifting of the embargo was not a question of timing, but of ensuring that responsibility for patrolling the Lebanese coast could be passed to the international forces.

Israel imposed the blockade when it went to war with Hizbollah after guerrillas captured two of its soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12. It bombed Beirut airport and coastal radars and barred most shipping from Lebanese ports.

Flights to and from Beirut resumed from Thursday evening and several international and Arab airlines announced resumption of normal services.

Italian and French naval vessels were 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 Hizbollah from re-arming, but which Lebanon saw as collective punishment.

Italy said it would soon deploy more troops to southern Lebanon that along with the dispatch of other European soldiers would comprise an "effective ground force", opening the way for all Israeli troops to leave.

"I think in a week the multinational force would be at 5,000 people," D'Alema said. "The French and Spanish are deploying, it will be possible to have an agreement on the withdrawal of Israeli troops in the next 10 days."

Israeli media have said the pullout was likely to finish by the start of the Jewish New Year, which begins on September 22.

In another area touched upon by the U.N. resolution, Olmert said Israel would be willing to discuss the disputed Shebaa Farms if Lebanon disarms Hizbollah, Israeli media reported.

The Shebaa Farms is a small patch of land claimed by Lebanon, but occupied by Israel since it captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

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