British Mediterranean Airways resumed commercial passenger flights to Beirut on Wednesday, becoming the first Western carrier to break Israel's air blockade of Lebanon.
The British flight, which originated at London's Heathrow Airport, came as Israel announced Wednesday that it will lift its sea and air blockade of Lebanon on Thursday evening. Israel has faced international pressure to end the embargo that was hampering Lebanon's efforts to rebuild following 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
An Airbus-320 of BMED, as the British Airways PLC franchise partner is known, landed at Beirut airport at 9:30 p.m. carrying some 67 passengers, 27 of whom disembarked while the rest continued to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Company officials said they had not sought Israeli permission to land in Beirut.
"We have taken permission to come to Lebanon only from the British and Lebanese governments. This was in response to the call by (Lebanese) Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri," Naji Mehdi, the company's regional manager, told reporters at Beirut airport shortly after the plane landed.
Lebanese legislators, led by Berri, began an open-ended sit-in at the Parliament building last Saturday to protest the Israeli blockade, which began two days after fighting erupted on July 12.
Berri has urged Arab planes and ships to break the Israeli blockade.
Israel said the blockade was necessary to prevent new arms shipments to Hezbollah. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has been working to get the blockade lifted since a U.N.-brokered cease-fire went into effect on Aug. 14.
Mehdi said BMED considered Beirut a "very important destinations in the Middle East."
"We have a great hope that Lebanon will regain its recovery, prosperity and activity with the utmost speed. This is one of the reasons that prompted us to take this decision," he said.
BMED was forced to suspend its eight flights a week between Heathrow and Beirut airport following Israeli air attacks that closed the airport on July 13.
Despite the air blockade, a Qatar Airways plane landed at Beirut airport on Monday carrying 142 passengers, the first commercial flight from the Gulf country to Lebanon since the war. Though company officials said the plane flew without Israeli permission, Israel said it had agreed to the flight and that more were expected.
Israel has allowed only Lebanese and Jordanian commercial flights to land in Beirut, on condition they stop in Amman before proceeding to the Lebanese capital.
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British Mediterranean Airway company officials said they had not sought Israeli permission to land in Beirut.