Israel agrees to lift blockade, clearing way for rebuilding
The decision was met with applause from a political gathering in Lebanon.
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel said it would lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon today, marking a crucial breakthrough in international efforts to rebuild from the war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
The move, announced Wednesday by the prime minister's office, will be the first major test for the U.N. force charged with keeping the peace and preventing arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah.
It was also a victory for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has repeatedly demanded that Israel end the blockade, and showed some disagreements can be resolved with U.N. mediation.
Israel is slowly pulling its troops out of southern Lebanon as international peacekeepers arrive. However, a deal on the thorniest 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 an air, land and sea blockade shortly after the war against Hezbollah began. Israel said it was vital to stopping the guerrilla group from resupplying itself with arms from its major patrons, Syria and Iran.
There are no estimates of losses from the blockade, but at one point it caused severe fuel shortages in Lebanon, leading to long lines at gas stations and forcing the electric company to ration power. 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 prevent arms shipments to Hezbollah.
On Wednesday, a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said Annan and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Olmert the international force was ready to monitor the airports and seaports, so Israel agreed to lift the blockade at 6 p.m. (11 a.m. EDT) today.
"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.
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