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Lebanon's air blockade lifted, but Israel keeps sea closed

JERUSALEM -- Israel lifted its air blockade of Lebanon yesterday after eight weeks, but maintained its sea cordon after determining that not enough international forces had taken up position along the coast to enforce an arms embargo against the Shi'ite militia Hezbollah.

Israel began allowing commercial flights to land yesterday at Rafik al-Hariri International Airport in Beirut, following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's pledge to do so the previous day.

An airliner of Lebanon's Middle East Airlines, coming in on a direct flight from Paris, circled Beirut in a celebratory gesture before landing shortly after the blockade was lifted at 6 p.m. The pilot waved a Lebanese flag from the cockpit as the plane rolled up to the terminal.

Israeli officials said German and Lebanese forces had taken up posts in the airport's passenger and cargo terminals to prevent arms from reaching Hezbollah, which Israel fought for 33 days in July and August. At the same time, Israeli officials said that Israeli warplanes continued to patrol Lebanese skies on intelligence-gathering missions and that there were no plans to end them.

Israel did not carry out its pledge to lift the sea blockade at the same time, citing the inability of a UN-backed multinational peacekeeping force to deploy enough ships off the coast to guarantee the arms embargo would remain intact. Olmert said in a statement Wednesday that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had assured him that French, Italian, British, and Greek vessels would monitor the coast until the German Navy deployed in roughly two weeks.

Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that Israel hoped to stop its sea patrols ``sooner rather than later" but that the timing depended on the speed of the international forces' deployment.

``The internationals are taking longer, unfortunately, to enforce the sea blockade," Regev said. ``When they are ready to do so, we will be ready to leave. The timing depends on them. We have no interest in keeping this in place."

Prime Minister Fouad Saniora of Lebanon sought to play down the importance of the delay in lifting the sea blockade, predicting it would be ended today after coordination among the UN, Israel, and the European nations providing sea patrols. He spoke after meeting with Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeir.

Israel has maintained its blockade three weeks after a UN-brokered cease-fire took effect Aug.14, ending weeks of fighting.

The resolution prohibits arms shipments to Hezbollah, which rained rockets on northern Israeli towns for much of the conflict, and calls for a 15,000-member multinational force to deploy alongside an equal number of Lebanese troops in the militia's southern stronghold. The UN force will have greater authority than its predecessor in southern Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah from rearming.

The blockade represents an embarrassment to the weak Lebanese government and a daunting obstacle to the country's economic recovery. Lebanon is a shipping hub for the Middle East, as well as a prime destination for tourists from wealthy Persian Gulf states.

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