Fri, Sep 08, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Annan, Lebanon welcome lifting of Israeli blockade

AFP , MADRID AND BEIRUT

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in Madrid yesterday for talks with Spanish leaders, welcomed Israel's decision to lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon late yesterday following international assurances over an arms embargo on Hezbollah.

Annan, in Spain for talks on the international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, said the end of the eight-week blockade at 1500 GMT yesterday would "allow a permanent ceasefire and stabilize the situation between Israel and Lebanon."

He added that the UN hoped the end of the blockade would "move us towards a wider peace process in the region, including the Palestinians, the Syrians and all parties" concerned.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office announced the end of the blockade on Wednesday, saying that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Annan had informed Olmert "that international forces are ready to take up control positions over Lebanon's seaports and airports."

Israel therefore agreed to "leave the aforesaid control positions and, at the same time, the international forces will enter."

Meanwhile, Lebanon breathed a collective sigh of relief yesterday over Israel's decision to lift a punishing air and sea blockade that has virtually cut off the country from the outside world for weeks and wreaked havoc on the economy.

"I'm ecstatic," said Hassan Kraytem, head of Beirut's port authority. "It's only fair that this blockade be lifted as it was illegal in the first place."

He said the port, which handles 80 percent of goods coming into the country, would resume full operations today when the first vessels were set to arrive.

Beirut international airport was bustling with activity as employees prepared to welcome the first flight due to land following the lifting of the embargo.

Airport officials said a flight operated by national carrier Middle East Airlines from Paris was scheduled to land at 6:15pm and more flights were scheduled later.

Business executives whose companies lost millions of dollars because of the blockade were working the phones to try to ensure their merchandise from abroad reached Beirut quickly.

"This blockade was strangling our company," said Karim Yared, director of Jean Yared and Sons, one of Lebanon's biggest steel importers. "We had stocks that were depleting, and we were missing a lot of things."

"Now we're hoping that the first ship for our company arrives within a week," he said.

Many shopkeepers also hailed Israel's announcement.

"This is a welcome breath of fresh air in such a morose atmosphere," said Samir Mouaykel, a grocer in Beirut.

"I was about to shut down the store as I only had a few canned goods left," he said.

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