Israel begins withdrawal, Lebanese troops prepare


  • World
  • Tuesday, 15 Aug 2006

By Lin Noueihed

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israeli forces began leaving parts of south Lebanon on Tuesday as a U.N. truce largely held for a second day and the Lebanese army prepared to move south. 

Thousands of refugees who had fled the month-long war between Israel and Hizbollah headed home to battered villages in the south. 

A displaced Lebanese family drives towards south Lebanon August 15, 2006. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

In northern Israel, residents also returned after weeks away from their homes to escape cross-border Hizbollah rocket fire. 

The Israeli army, which had poured 30,000 troops into the south to fight the Shi'ite Muslim guerrillas, plans to start handing over some pockets of territory to U.N. troops in a day or two, Israeli officials and Western diplomats said. 

Israel's top general, Dan Halutz, said Israeli forces could complete a withdrawal within 7 to 10 days, army radio reported. 

In line with the U.N. Security Council resolution that halted the fighting, the Lebanese army will begin moving 15,000 troops south of the Litani River on Thursday, a senior political source said. The force is assembling at various army bases. 

"As we speak, the army is readying the force," the source said, adding that Lebanese units would stay out of areas occupied by Israeli troops until U.N. peacekeepers move in. 

Lebanese Defence Minister Elias al-Murr has said the army will not disarm Hizbollah guerrillas in the south. 

The truce remains fragile. Israeli soldiers shot five Hizbollah fighters in two incidents in Lebanon on Tuesday, the Israeli army said. It was not known whether any had been killed. 

The army also said four Hizbollah mortar bombs landed near its troops overnight, causing no casualties. On Monday Israeli troops killed at least one guerrilla after the truce. 

Israel's quicker withdrawal plans reflect concern that its forces on the ground are easy targets for Hizbollah attack. 

Israeli troops left the Christian town of Marjayoun, the nearby town of Qlaiah and the village of Ghandouriyeh, scene of ferocious battles over the weekend, security sources said. 

Much of Ghandouriyeh was devastated. In one area the shattered tracks of an Israeli armoured vehicle lay near a blood-stained Israeli flak jacket. The bodies of five Hizbollah guerrillas were found elsewhere in the village. 

EXTRACTING BODIES 

Lebanese rescue workers pulled bodies from the rubble of destroyed houses in several border villages, witnesses said. 

The U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon said it had not observed any breaches of the truce. It said initial assessments in three southern villages showed that between 50 and 80 percent of civilian houses had been destroyed. 

Israel has said it will not withdraw fully until a beefed-up U.N. force and Lebanese army troops are deployed in the south. 

The general calm has prompted a chaotic tide of Shi'ite Muslim refugees flowing back to southern villages, despite the risk of unexploded munitions left over from the fighting and Israeli leaflet drops warning that it was not safe to return. 

"People need to be aware the dangers are very high," said Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. She said there had been at least eight incidents involving unexploded ordnance, but had no word on casualties. 

Life was also returning to towns in northern Israel. 

"I am glad I left but even happier to be back," said Shimon Chen, 30 in the town of Nahariya. "The government is telling us to come back north but I'm not so quick to trust the ceasefire." 

Plans for the expanded U.N. force are still in their early stages. Potential contributing nations will hold a second meeting on Thursday to agree on a "concept of operations". 

The present commander of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, Major-General Alain Pellegrini, told France's Le Monde newspaper it would take a year for the expanded UNIFIL to reach full strength. 

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, whose country may lead the force, was due in Beirut on Wednesday to discuss its deployment, the reopening of Lebanon's ports and airport, and humanitarian aid, France's Foreign Ministry said. 

In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Hizbollah's "victory" in the war with Israel had destroyed U.S. plans to reshape the Middle East. 

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described Assad's speech as a "negative contribution" and cancelled a trip to Syria planned for later on Tuesday. 

At least 1,110 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed in the conflict that began after Hizbollah captured two of its soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12. Israel says it killed 530 Hizbollah fighters. Hizbollah puts the toll at 80. 

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