Israel Says It Will Lift Lebanon Blockade

Israel will lift its sea and air blockade of Lebanon on Thursday night, the Israeli government announced Wednesday.

A statement from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said international forces would replace Israelis in command positions at Lebanese seaports and airports.

Israel has maintained the blockade since July 12, when it began an offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. The offensive ended with a cease-fire late last month. The Israeli government and military said the blockade was necessary to prevent new arms shipments to the guerrillas.

The announcement came shortly after Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh threatened to use force to break the blockade if it isn't lifted in a two-day timeframe indicated by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"We will wait for the 48 hours given by Kofi Annan, and if the situation is resolved, we will thank him," Salloukh said Wednesday at 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."

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Meanwhile, a British Mediterranean Airways flight left London Wednesday afternoon bound for Beirut, the first Western carrier to do so since the country's only international airport was attacked by Israeli warplanes in July. It was scheduled to arrive Wednesday night.

CountryWatch: Israel

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev earlier tied the lifting of the blockade to the Lebanon's ability to prevent Hezbollah from rearming.

"Israel will be ready to lift the restrictions when the Lebanese government augmented by international forces will be ready to enforce the arms embargo on Hezbollah," Regev said. "If they are ready, we will be ready."

Annan, meanwhile, called on Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon to disarm and to devote themselves to political activities, and said Lebanon must take the initiative in disarming Hezbollah.

"There has to be a national consensus among the Lebanese to disarm" Hezbollah, Annan said. "The remaining ones should disarm and devote themselves to political activities."

Annan also said use of force "is not the only means" in dealing with Hezbollah.

"I don't think we need to insist in Lebanon that's the only way to do it," he said. "If we do move in that direction, then we are going to compound the problem."

CountryWatch: Lebanon

He also said Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon is crucial to the deployment of the 15,000 peacekeepers the U.N. wants to send to monitor the cease-fire alongside Lebanese troops.

"We will have a credible force," Annan said, but added "the withdrawal of Israeli forces is equally crucial."

Annan also said that a mediator he appointed for indirect talks between Israel and Hezbollah on the release of two abducted Israeli soldiers will be "in the region before the end of the week."

Reuters reported Wednesday that Salloukh, Lebanon's foreign minister, insisted the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah guerrillas will not be released unless there are talks with Israel about the exchange of Lebanese prisoners.

Annan has not said whether a prisoner swap was on the agenda for the mediation effort. Israel repeated its stance on Monday demanding an unconditional release of the soldiers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.