Lebanon truce holds, Israel starts pullback

  • World
  • Tuesday, 15 Aug 2006

By Lin Noueihed

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Thousands of refugees headed home to south Lebanon on Tuesday as a U.N. truce between Israel and Hizbollah held for a second day and Israeli forces began pulling back from some positions they had occupied. 

The Israeli army, which had poured 30,000 troops into the south to fight Hizbollah 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. 

Israeli soldiers leave Lebanese territory on the second day of a ceasefire, near the town of Avivim, August 15, 2006. (REUTERS/Eliana Aponte)

Israel's expedited timetable for withdrawing reflects concerns that its forces on the ground are easy targets for Hizbollah attack. "They want a fast exit in one to two weeks," said a Western diplomat briefed by the Israeli army. 

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

Much of Ghandouriyeh was devastated, and in one area the shattered tracks of an Israeli armoured vehicle lay near a bloodied Israeli military flak jacket. The bodies of five Hizbollah guerrillas killed in the fighting were found. 

A Lebanese political source said the Israelis could withdraw completely from Lebanon as early as Wednesday and hand over all their positions to an existing U.N. force, paving the way for the Lebanese army to start deploying in the area from Thursday. 

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

An army spokeswoman said more Israeli troops pulled out of Lebanon overnight, but she declined to give numbers. Israeli media reports said 1,000 paratroops crossed into Israel, raising to 2,000 the number of soldiers who have returned. 

The "cessation of hostilities" remains fragile. The Israeli army said four Hizbollah mortar bombs had landed near troops in the south overnight, causing no casualties. It said on Monday it had killed at least one guerrilla in shootings after the truce. 


But the 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. 

"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. 

The truce has also allowed many Israelis to leave bomb shelters for the first time in a month. 

Thousands of vehicles jammed a bombed-out coastal highway linking Beirut to the south from the early hours of Tuesday. 

"I want to put (Hizbollah chief Sayyed Hassan) Nasrallah's face on the dollar so the whole world can see it," said Majed Aboud, sitting in a truck on the road to the badly bombed village of Qana. "Victory is ours." 

Cars, vans and pickup trucks packed with families and belongings strapped to the roof crawled along makeshift roads. Many had pictures of Nasrallah plastered on their windows. 

Plans for the expanded U.N. force are still in their early stages. After a meeting of potential troop contributing nations on Monday, diplomats said a "concept of operations" would be ready by Thursday when another meeting is scheduled. 

Diplomats say France is likely to lead the force. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy was due in Beirut later on Tuesday to discuss the conditions for the deployment of the international force, the reopening of Lebanon's ports and airport, and humanitarian aid, France's foreign ministry said. 

Lebanon's Defence Minister Elias Murr said the Lebanese army would send 15,000 troops to the north of the Litani River around the end of the week, ready to enter the southern border area. 

But he said the army would not disarm Hizbollah guerrillas, who have controlled the area for six years. 

"The army is not going to the south to strip Hizbollah of weapons and do the work Israel did not," he told LBC Television. 

The rush by the hundreds of thousands of refugees to head back to villages with no electricity, water and basic services, let alone many destroyed homes, has surprised the authorities. 

Nasrallah has said Hizbollah will immediately begin repairing damaged homes and would pay a year's rent and other costs to help the owners of about 15,000 destroyed houses. 

About 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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