GUAM (Reuter)–The United States Wednesday lifted a 12-year-old ban on US citizens visiting Lebanon after receiving pledges from the government in Beirut to do more to fight terrorism.
But Secretary of State Madeleine Albright–in announcing the decision–said Lebanon remains a dangerous place and she issued what she called a "stern" warning urging Americans not to travel there. She and other US. officials claimed the decision was based on a legal interpretation of US. law and not on political factors–like its potential impact on Middle East peace. "I have decided to let it expire," Albright said of the ban that Lebanon and the politically active community of Lebanese- Americans had long sought to revoke.
Speaking to reporters traveling with her from Singapore–she said she acted after Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri promised her in a telephone call to greatly increase cooperation in fighting terrorism.
A special Lebanese envoy is due in Washington this week to work on this issue and Hariri also has promised to try to get his parliament to ratify by October the last of ten conventions committing Lebanon to work with the United States in hostage-taking cases–she said.
The ban is not watertight as it bars American citizens only from using their US passports to visit Lebanon. Dual citizens can still use their Lebanese passports.
The travel ban has been widely ignored–especially by some 40,000 Lebanese-American dual nationals who visit Beirut each year–but Lebanese officials say it continues to put a damper on business relations between the two countries.
Secretaries of state review the ban every six months and Albright faced that deadline Thursday–prompting the action she announced on Wednesday.
There are many places in the world where it is dangerous for Americans to travel but where the US government does not impose legal restrictions on doing so. "I don’t believe we should be pushing Americans to break the law,” Albright said.
Lebanon praised the US decision–calling it a gesture of goodwill and a sign of cooperation between the two countries.
"I think this is something great and we are very happy," Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri told Reuters minutes after US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called to tell him of her decision.
The ban–imposed 12 years ago–had blocked visits by US. businessmen as the country began rebuilding from the 1975-90 civil war. No other Western country banned its citizens from visiting.
"This is a radical change that will reflect very positively on the situation," Hariri–a billionaire who has spearheaded the drive to restore Beirut as the Middle East’s business center–said later to reporters.
"Without any doubt this will affect positively the economic situation in the country," said Hariri–who had campaigned for a lifting of the ban. "Businessmen can come."
However–Albright–making the announcement in Guam during an Asian tour–said the United States would continue to advise its citizens not to visit Lebanon because it remained dangerous.
She said a Lebanese envoy would arrive in Washington this week to work on cooperation against "terrorism" and Hariri had pledged to work with Washington in any hostage-taking cases.
"This is a vote of confidence in Lebanon–especially in the area of security,” said Hariri.
Lebanon had long campaigned against the travel ban–which it said was not justified after the release of the last kidnap victim more than five years ago and the ending of the civil war in 1990.
However–Hizbollah guerrillas continue to fight Israeli troops occupying a strip of south Lebanon and no one was ever arrested for the kidnappings in the 1980s that the United States has blamed on Hizbollah.
"We have suffered a lot from terrorism…so we are against terrorism,” said Hariri. "The resistance (to Israeli occupation) is something else."
Although the travel ban was porous – with tens of thousands of Americans visiting using second nationalities or by asking Lebanese officials not to stamp their passports – it had hindered US-Lebanese ties.
The current president of the American University of Beirut–which had one president kidnapped and another killed in the 1980s–until now had been forced to administer the university from the United States.
"This is very good news for us and the country," said John Dagher–managing director of the Beirut office of US securities firm Merrill Lynch. "I don’t think tomorrow night we will see the airport full of Americans but it is a good step."
No senior American official of Merrill Lynch–which in October 1994 handled the first Eurobond issue by the Lebanese government as it sought funds to rebuild–has visited Beirut since before the ban–he said.
"It is a new dimension in the American business interest," said Dagher. "I think a lot of American firms were sitting and watching others take the business."