IDF set to leave Lebanon within 2 weeks

Sea blockade to remain 2 more days; air siege lifted despite families' protests.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Defense Minister Amir Peretz announced on Friday morning that the IDF hoped withdraw all its remaining soldiers from southern Lebanon within the next two weeks. Peretz said the withdrawal would depend on coordination with the UN multinational force that would deploy in the army's stead. An official in the Prime Minister's Office said on Thursday that the IDF planned to leave southern Lebanon within a week. Peretz also met Friday morning with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, where he emphasized that Germany had "an important potential role in returning kidnapped soldiers Eldad Regev and [Ehud] Goldwasser home." On Thursday, Israel lifted its two-month-old aerial siege of Lebanon, but kept its naval blockade in place because the international force is not yet in a position to enforce the arms embargo on Hizbullah. Senior government officials said that Israel had only agreed to lift the sea blockade on Wednesday because United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the international force would be ready to enforce the arms embargo. "We were ready, the UN wasn't," the officials said. They added that it would likely be another 48 hours before a naval force made up of French, Italian, Greek and British troops off the shore of Lebanon could enforce the embargo, and the sea blockade could be lifted. The forces were out on the sea, but not yet ready to assume responsibility, the officials said. This force is to patrol off the coast of Lebanon until a German naval force is scheduled to arrive in some two weeks and take over the responsibilities. Israel Radio reported that Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said he expected the sea blockade to be lifted by Friday morning. According to the report, UNIFIL deemed his expectations reasonable. German experts, meanwhile, arrived at Beirut International Airport on Thursday to supervise the off-loading of cargo planes to ensure that they don't include weaponry. A few hours before the aerial blockade was lifted at 6 p.m., the families of abducted soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser met Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and urged him not to lift the siege, which they said should be used as leverage to bring about the release of the two. Olmert turned down their request. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that Olmert had made it clear since the cease-fire went into effect that Israel would lift the aerial and sea blockade of Lebanon once the international force was in place to implement the embargo. The officials stressed that Olmert never conditioned this on the release of the two captives. Likewise, the official said, Israel has said it would withdraw its forces from southern Lebanon when an international force of 5,000 troops was deployed there. The official said that this was expected "within a few days to a week." Europe, the UN and the US have pressured Israel to lift the blockade ever since the cease-fire went into effect on August 14. Olmert spoke to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Tuesday evening before deciding to lift the blockade. The American position has been largely that the blockade was causing severe economic hardship to Lebanon, and that it could weaken and possibly lead to the downfall of the Saniora government, something the US did not want to see happen. In a related development, Olmert met Thursday evening with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who arrived for a one-day visit. Lavrov arrived in Israel from meetings he held Thursday in Beirut and Damascus. While describing the Olmert-Lavrov meeting as "warm and cordial," Israeli officials said there were differences of opinion as to how to move the diplomatic process forward. The Russians, according to these officials, are interested in seeing Israeli dialogue with the Syrians, and are in favor of an international conference. Olmert, according to his aides, emphasized the need to stop terrorism, and that this was not simply something that Israel could just "let go by." Olmert announced before the meeting that he would visit Russia on October 18. This would be his first trip abroad since lobbying support for the realignment plan in Europe in June. Lavrov is scheduled to meet Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Friday, where one of the focuses of the talks is expected to be the state-of-the-art Russian weaponry that was found in Hizbullah's hands in Lebanon. This issue, according to Israeli officials, did not come up in Lavrov's meeting with Olmert.