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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 September 2006, 21:29 GMT 22:29 UK
Israel eases blockade of Lebanon
Israeli soldier on the outskirts of the Lebanese village of Marwahin
Israel is waiting for a UN force to take over before it withdraws fully
Israel has partly eased a blockade of Lebanon imposed in July at the start of its conflict with Hezbollah fighters.

Israel said the air blockade was lifted at 1800 (1500 GMT) but a naval embargo would remain until a sufficient UN naval force was in place.

Relatives of two Israeli soldiers, whose capture triggered the conflict, said the blockade should not be lifted until they had been freed.

The embargo held back recovery after Israel's seven-week bombardment.

Fighting ended on 14 August after the UN passed Resolution 1701 which called for a ceasefire and security arrangements for Israel's northern border.

The two kidnapped soldiers are currently in Lebanon - tomorrow, with the blockade lifted, they can find themselves in Tehran
Benny Regev, brother of captured soldier

But Israel kept up the blockade of Lebanese seaports and allowed only two airlines to use Beirut's international airport, on condition flights stopped over in Jordan.

Israel said international troops needed to be in place to prevent Hezbollah smuggling weapons into Lebanon.

Israel had cautioned a full lifting of the embargo would not happen "when the bell rings" at 1500 GMT.

A spokeswoman for Israeli PM Ehud Olmert said "the naval blockade will continue until the international naval force is in place."

The spokeswoman said the lifting was "a gradual process" that "could take hours or a day [to complete]".

Italian, French and Greek ships are expected to patrol the coast until a German-led force takes over.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he hoped Italian, French and Greek naval forces "will organise quickly and that we can pull back when they take up positions".

A Middle East Airways flight from Paris landed at Beirut shortly after 1500GMT.

"This is the first sign that the Lebanese are recovering their freedom," said Lebanese Transport Minister Mohammed Safadi.

Lost leverage

Lebanon estimates the country has been losing $30m-50m a day in trade because of the blockade - money desperately needed to help the rebuilding.


UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says he hopes the move will "allow a permanent ceasefire and stabilise the situation between Israel and Lebanon".

There has been anger about the move in Israel, where Mr Olmert is already under pressure for his handling of the abortive military campaign to release the soldiers.

Cabinet and Kadima party colleague Shaul Mofaz said the blockade should have been maintained until Lebanon gave information on the fate of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

Relatives of the two men met Mr Olmert on Thursday to express their concerns.

Shlomo Goldwasser, father of one of the soldiers, said: "The blockade was a way to pressure Hezbollah, but there's no blockade any more."

"I'm not even angry. It just makes me even more sad."

Benny Regev, brother of the other captured soldier earlier told Israeli radio: "As far as we know the two kidnapped soldiers are currently in Lebanon... Tomorrow, with the blockade lifted, they can find themselves in Tehran."

International pressure

In Beirut, newspaper headlines celebrated ahead of the lifting of the blockade. "Lebanon opens up to the world again," said one.

Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said Israel had caved in as a result of Lebanon's refusal to compromise, coupled with international pressure on the Jewish state.

Bomb-damaged area of south Lebanon
Lifting the blockade means rebuilding Lebanon can accelerate

UN officials have said German boats will lead a contingent of naval vessels from other countries - including France, Italy, Greece and the UK - in policing Lebanon's coastline.

Correspondents say supervising Lebanon's airspace and coastline is the first major test for the UN force charged with keeping the peace and preventing arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah.

Israel is also pulling its troops out of southern Lebanon as international peacekeepers arrive.

About 3,250 international troops are now in Lebanon under the UN banner, and UN officials say that figure could reach 5,000 troops next week.

The Spanish government on Thursday approved sending a team of 1,100 troops to join the UN force in Lebanon.

UN Resolution 1701 calls for a force of up to 15,000 peacekeepers to help police the border with Israel along with a similar-sized Lebanese force.

More than 1,100 Lebanese and about 160 Israelis died in the conflict, sparked by the capture of the two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid.

Lebanese civilians on how the blockade has affected them

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