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French Version

Maritime blockade ends as UN naval forces start coastal patrols

Port of beirut is still counting its losses from 8 weeks of closure

After eight long weeks, Israel ended its naval blockade on Lebanon Friday as an Italian-led international force began patrolling the country's coastline, an Israeli government spokeswoman said.

Italian, French and Greek naval forces began patrolling Lebanese coastal waters at 12:30 p.m. under Italian command.

"The naval blockade has lifted," said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office.

"The UN naval force led by Italy has taken control of the sector in complete coordination with the Israeli military and will be implementing the embargo on arms intended for Hizbullah," she added.

Israel's military confirmed its warships were returning home after being stationed off the coast of Lebanon for weeks.

"Israeli ships have been given the orders to turn over the implementation of the arms embargo to the international force," Eisin added.

Major General Alain Pellegrini, head of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), said the Italian-led naval force was operational and had taken over coastal patrols from Israeli vessels.

"The blockade has seriously undermined the Lebanese economy and it is high time for it to end so as to allow the people to get back to their businesses," Pellegrini said in a statement issued Friday.

Hassan Qoreitem, the head of Beirut Port, told The Daily Star late Friday that the port's losses from delayed shipments, customs fees, merchandise loss "range between $5 million and $10 million per month," putting the cost over an 8-week blockade between "$10 million and $20 million."

"We cannot have exact numbers for our losses," said Qoreitem, adding that the year has not ended yet and "there are many ships filled with merchandise, which were delayed, but will reach Lebanon. Some others just unloaded their cargo in ports in neighboring counties such as Egypt."

He added that on Friday, "three ships which were anchored 100 kilometers off the Lebanese coast managed to get in," two headed for Beirut en route to the Jiyyeh power plant, south of the capital.

A UNIFIL spokesman said four Italian ships were supporting the Lebanese Navy in monitoring Lebanon's territorial waters. France said it will supply two frigates, complete with helicopters, and a transport vessel for the surveillance force.

The Italian and French vessels are expected to patrol the coast until a German-led contingent can take over in line with a Lebanese request to the UN.

UNIFIL said it had already established a naval operations center to coordinate all operational details, and a team of security experts will start work in Lebanon on Saturday to assess what technical assistance the UN can offer at air and sea ports and border crossings.

Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, whose country aims to contribute some 2,450 ground troops to UNIFIL, confirmed that Rome had taken over responsibility for the coast.

"An Italian admiral is in control right now under UN mandate and the Lebanese government's agreement," D'Alema told reporters during a joint conference with his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni.

Under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, UNIFIL will grow to up to 15,000 troops to maintain stability and back up the Lebanese Army, which has deployed in the South for the first time in almost four decades.

The resolution halted 34 days of combat that killed more than 1,200 Lebanese, most of them civilians, and160 Israelis, most of them soldiers. Israel has yet to withdraw its last troops from Lebanese territory. Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier Israel hoped to complete its pullout within two weeks, once coordination with the UN had been completed.

Beirut 09-09-2006
The Daily Star

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