|Israel to lift 8-week old blockade today
|Aridi says pressure leveled against jewish state forced end to siege
Israel said Wednesday it would lift an eight-week-old air and sea blockade of Lebanon at 1500 GMT Thursday, handing over control to international forces.
Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi confirmed the move, saying "Lebanon's steadfast position" and "pressures" brought to bear on Israel had tipped the decision for the blockade, in force since July 13, to be lifted from Thursday evening.
A statement from the Israeli Premier's Office said Ehud Olmert had been told by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that "international forces are ready to take over control posts over the sea ports and airports of Lebanon."
"Thus it was agreed that tomorrow [Thursday]) at 6 p.m. Israel will leave the control positions over the ports in conjunction with the entry of the international forces," a statement from Olmert's office said.
German experts were to arrive at Beirut's airport later Wednesday, the statement said.
German naval forces are also expected to arrive within two weeks to deploy on the Lebanese coast. Until the German forces arrive, Italian, French, British and Greek troops will carry out their task, the statement said.
Annan had said earlier in Ankara he was hopeful the blockade would be lifted within 36-48 hours.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh said earlier on Wednesday his country would break the blockade by force if it is not lifted in 48 hours.
"We will wait for the 48 hours given by Kofi Annan, and if the situation is resolved, we will thank him," Salloukh told journalists on the sidelines of an Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo.
"If it is not, the Lebanese government will take the necessary measures and we will break the blockade with all our might," he added.
He also said the two Israeli soldiers held by Hizbullah would not be released unless there were talks with Israel about the exchange of Lebanese prisoners.
In a sign the end of the embargo was imminent, British Airways said it was resuming direct flights to Beirut after the British government had given assurances it would be safe to do so.
Lebanon's Middle East Airlines and Royal Jordanian began flying regularly into the capital last month, but have complied with Israel's insistence that all such flights go via Amman. Qatar Airways resumed direct flights to Beirut on Monday. Direct flights between Manama and Beirut will also resume on Saturday, carrying passengers and humanitarian aid.
The Lebanese daily newspaper L'Orient Le Jour reported Wednesday requests had also been filed from Air France and Germany's Lufthansa to resume flights to Lebanon.
In Paris, Air France said it had again begun taking reservations for flights to Beirut, hoping to resume flights from Friday.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy reiterated France was ready to help monitor Lebanon's coast. "If [the Beirut government] wants us to help, we can do that," he said.
Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said on the eve of a visit to Israel that he planned to press the Israelis for an "immediate lifting" of the air and naval blockade of Lebanon.
D'Alema said the blockade has made the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Lebanon "more difficult" and "complicates efforts at reconstruction and seems to show a persistent mistrust by Israel regarding international guarantees for its own security."
Israel also pressed for UN forces to deploy on Lebanon's border with Syria, the main conduit in the past for Hizbullah weapons supplies.
But Lebanon, whose consent is needed, has said it will only seek technical assistance.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced support for the Beirut government's stance.
"We are inclined to support the position of Lebanese Premier Fouad Siniora, who has repeatedly said they will decide this question themselves and that at the present time the presence of UN peacekeepers on this border is not essential," he told Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper.
International pressure was also piling up on Damascus to commit itself to respecting Lebanon's sovereignty, help to disarm Hizbullah and support wider Middle East peace efforts.
Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the EU presidency, said Wednesday it was Syria's choice whether to play the role of "a constructive partner or a spoiler; this will also determine the future EU relations with Syria."
"We need to be ready to engage Syria," Tuomioja said during a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
UN peacekeeping force commander Major General Alain Pellegrini told France's Europe 1 radio the truce in Lebanon remained shaky, saying: "It remains fragile as far as there is an Israeli presence in Lebanon because every incident, misunderstanding or provocation can escalate very quickly."
Pellegrini's spokesman, Alexander Ivanko, said the UN peacekeeping force had protested to Israel on Tuesday over truce violations.
The Daily Star