Israel said Wednesday it would lift its stifling blockade of Lebanon within a day, marking a crucial breakthrough in international efforts to rebuild southern Lebanon from the war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
The transfer of supervision of Lebanon's airspace and coastline to international troops would be the first major test for the U.N. force charged with keeping the peace and preventing arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah guerrillas.
It also was a major victory for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who had repeatedly demanded Israel end the blockade, and it showed that with U.N. mediation, some of the outstanding disagreements might be resolved.
Israel is slowly pulling its troops out of southern Lebanon as international peacekeepers arrive. However, a deal on the thorniest remaining issue — the return of two Israeli soldiers whose July 12 capture sparked the fighting — will be far more difficult to broker, since Israel has demanded their unconditional release but Hezbollah has insisted on a prisoner swap.
Israel imposed the air, land and sea blockade shortly after the war against Hezbollah began nearly two months ago. Israel said the blockade was vital to stopping the guerrilla group from resupplying itself with arms from its major patrons, Syria and Iran.
There were no dollar estimates on the losses Lebanon suffered from the blockade, but at one point it caused severe fuel shortages, leading to long lines at gas stations and forcing the electric company to ration power. But in recent weeks, some supply ships were allowed to dock after coordinating with Israel, easing the fuel crisis and allowing the electricity authority to lift part of the rationing.
Israel had said it would not end the blockade until a beefed up U.N. force in southern Lebanon could take over to prevent arms shipments to Hezbollah.
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On Wednesday, a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Olmert that the international forces were ready to monitor the airports and seaports, so Israel agreed to lift the blockade effective 6 p.m. Thursday.
"We have said from the beginning of the blockade ... that as soon as international troops would arrive Israel would hand over the implementation of the (arms) embargo to the international troops," Israeli government spokesman Miri Eisin said.
When Israel's decision was announced at a political gathering in Lebanon on Wednesday evening, the crowd broke into noisy applause.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a staunch supporter of Hezbollah, hailed the decision as a victory for Lebanon.
"Lebanon's firm position and its refusal to bow to pressure or blackmail forced Israeli officials to take the decision on lifting the blockade," he said, adding that Israel still has to remove its forces from south Lebanon.
Eisin said Israel was still concerned about arms smuggling to Hezbollah across Lebanon's border with Syria.
"Until that issue is resolved, Israel will continue to reserve our right of self-defense to continue to implement the embargo against any arrival of weapons to Hezbollah from Syria," she said, in what appeared to be an implied threat to conduct airstrikes against vehicles carrying arms shipments.
Israel has called for international forces to be stationed along the border, but Lebanon has said it could patrol the area itself with only technical support from the U.N. mission. Lebanon has deployed thousands of troops there, sealing off smuggling routes along the rugged mountain frontier. Syria also has promised to improve security along the border.
German experts were expected to arrive at Beirut airport Wednesday and German naval forces were to take positions along the coast within two weeks, the Israeli statement said. Until then, Italian, French, British and Greek forces would secure the area, it said.
A sticking point in lifting the siege was Israel's demand that foreign troops be in place first, as opposed to Lebanon's insistence that the blockade be ended before it asked for the foreign assistance, according to Lebanese officials.
Under the U.N.-brokered deal, the Beirut government sent a letter to the United Nations on Wednesday evening — about the time the Israeli government announced the lifting of the blockade — requesting that Germany monitor shipping into Lebanon, a Lebanese official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the agreement.
Airport security will be handled solely by Lebanese authorities with only technical support from U.N. peacekeepers, the official said.
About 3,250 U.N. forces are now in Lebanon, and U.N. officials expect that figure to reach 5,000 by late next week. A U.N. cease-fire resolution calls for a 15,000 member U.N. force to patrol south Lebanon, along with 15,000 Lebanese soldiers, to prevent another outbreak of violence.
French peacekeepers began their first patrols of Lebanon's bomb-ravaged border area Wednesday and were greeted by villagers waving flags and taking pictures.
But in a reminder of the fragility of the peace, two Lebanese explosives experts were killed and one was seriously wounded in the village of Aita al-Jabal as they tried to defuse an unexploded artillery shell left over from the war, Lebanese officials said.
The 34-day war, which ended Aug. 14, killed 855 Lebanese and 159 Israelis. During the fighting, Hezbollah launched nearly 4,000 rockets into northern Israel, forcing about 300,000 residents to evacuate and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to buildings and the economy.
Lebanon estimates that Israeli airstrikes and ground attacks caused US$3.6 billion in damage. International donors pledged US$1 billion to Lebanon last week, but rebuilding efforts could not begin in earnest until Israel ended the blockade.
Enforcing the blockade during the fighting, Israeli warplanes attacked Beirut airport's runways and stopped shipping from entering Lebanon without permission. Roads and bridges linking Lebanon with Syria, a main backer of Hezbollah and Lebanon's only land link to the Arab world, were destroyed.
Israel softened the blockade in recent weeks, allowing some commercial flights into the airport and letting some aid ships to enter. Gulf Air announced Wednesday it will start flying to Lebanon beginning Saturday, and a British Airways flight was expected to fly into the airport Wednesday evening from London.
The land route was also reopened, but Israel continued to warn against flying or sailing into Lebanon without prior approval.
Lebanese officials were losing patience with the blockade, which was seen as a humiliation.
Shortly before Israel's announcement Wednesday, Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh said Lebanon would "break the blockade by all available means" if it was not lifted by Thursday.
Throughout his 11-day Mideast tour, Annan had been calling on Israel to end the blockade.
Speaking in Ankara, Turkey, he brought up the next hurdle, calling for Israel to finish pulling its troops out of Lebanon. Israel still has small numbers of troops in border villages where Hezbollah forces were dug in.
Annan said Wednesday it would be time for Israel to withdraw once 5,000 international troops are on ground.