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Israel Pulling Its Ships From Lebanon

Members of a local Israeli rowing club pass by as Israeli naval boats patrol off the northern Israeli coast next to the border crossing with Lebanon at Rosh Haniqra, Thursday Sept. 7, 2006.
AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti
Israel is ending its naval blockade of Lebanon, and hopes to withdraw its last soldiers there within two weeks.

The Israelis will be replaced by French, Italian, and Greek warships under a United Nations mandate, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger. Israel says their mission is to prevent the shipment of weapons from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah.

The lifting of the air and sea blockade of Lebanon is seen as a boost to the three-week-old cease-fire. It would wind up Israel's recent campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, and allow desperately needed reconstruction projects there to proceed freely. Up to 15,000 Lebanese soldiers backed by an equal number of international forces are deploying in southern Lebanon to replace the Israelis under an Aug. 14 truce.

Israel plans to pull all its troops out of Lebanon in time for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins in two weeks, reports Berger. Israel is pleased about the deployment of an international force, which will include French, Italian, Spanish and Turkish troops, among others. More than 3,000 foreign troops are already in Lebanon and when the number reaches 5,000 Israel will pull out. UN officials say that should happen in about 10 days.

In other developments:

  • Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has signaled that Israel might cede disputed territory to Lebanon if the Lebanese carry out all provisions of their recent cease-fire with Israel, including the disarming of Hezbollah guerrillas, media reported on Friday.
  • Israel on Friday rejected Russia's proposal of a Mideast peace conference, saying Israel's immediate focus should be on its conflict with the Palestinians. "I think putting all of the issues ... into one bowl would only make things more complicated," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said at a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
  • Lavrov said Russia was looking into Israeli charges that Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas used Russian arms supplied by Syria in their recent war with Israel. Russian laws governing arms sales stipulate that no weapons can be transferred to a third party, Lavrov said.
  • British Prime Minister Tony Blair will meet this weekend with top Israeli leaders and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but no members of Hamas, the ruling Palestinian party. Even that is too much for hundreds of Palestinians, who have signed a petition saying Blair is unwelcome because of his support for Israel. Blair cannot "wash his hands, which are stained with Lebanese blood, in Palestinian waters," the petition says.

    Israel sealed off Lebanon by air and sea at the start of its war against Hezbollah to keep Syria and Iran from resupplying it with arms. Israel, yielding to intense international pressure, ended its air blockade of Lebanon on Thursday, but said it would maintain the naval blockade until international peacekeeping vessels arrived to monitor the seas.

    The U.N. informed the Lebanese government that a joint French, Italian and Greek naval force began patrolling the Lebanese coastline at 12:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. EDT) Friday, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

    Israel has been gradually pulling out its soldiers — whose number peaked at 30,000 at the war's end — as international replacements arrive.