Lebanon's Only Airport Reopens as Air Blockade Is Officially Lifted

Israel said it lifted its nearly two-month-long air blockade of Lebanon on Thursday but kept its naval blockade in place until international forces can take over.

"The aerial blockade has been removed. In coordination with the United Nations, the naval blockade will continue until the international naval force is in place," said Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israeli officials said the United Nations was still working out logistical issues, and they expected the problem to be resolved within 48 hours.

The lifting of the aerial blockade will bring a measure of relief to the war-stricken country and sets the first test for a U.N. peacekeeping force charged with keeping arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah.

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Signaling the resumption of normal air traffic, a commercial flight by the national carrier Middle East Airlines circled downtown Beirut three times at 6:04 p.m., four minutes after the embargo was over, in a ceremonial show.

The flight, from Paris, then headed for Beirut's airport.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev confirmed that the army began lifting the embargo shortly after 6 p.m. He declined to say how long the pullback would take.

Israel had come under international pressure to lift the blockade, which threatened to derail a U.N. cease-fire that ended 34 days of fighting between Hezbollah and Israeli forces. The blockade hampered rebuilding efforts, and business leaders said it cost the country about $50 million a day.

Israel's actions came despite objections from the army and the families of two kidnapped soldiers, who argued that ending the blockade would deny Israel leverage in securing their release. The soldiers were kidnapped by Hezbollah guerrillas July 12, triggering the war with the militants.

CountryWatch: Israel | CountryWatch: Lebanon