Israel abandons all positions in Lebanon except in divided village

Sunday, October 1st 2006, 11:25 am
By: News On 6

MARWAHEEN, Lebanon (AP) _ The Israeli army abandoned almost all of its positions in Lebanon early Sunday, a key step toward fulfilling a major condition of the truce that ended a monthlong war against Hezbollah.

The pre-dawn pullout put a formal end to a nearly three-month troop incursion into Lebanon that began after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two soldiers and killed three others in a July 12 cross-border raid. Thirty-four days of fighting ensued, followed by an agreement providing for international peacekeepers to police the border with the Lebanese army.

The head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon praised the withdrawal and said he expected the remaining Israeli soldiers _ in a divided village that straddles the Israel-Lebanon border _ would leave this week.

Following Sunday's withdrawal, Israeli spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel was ``now waiting for Lebanon to do its part under the truce.'' Israel wants Lebanon to keep Hezbollah out of the south and disarm it.

But Israel will continue surveillance flights, which both Lebanon and the U.N. consider a violation of the border. Alexander Ivanko, a spokesman for the U.N. force known as UNIFIL, said the world body had repeatedly demanded that Israel stop the flights.

Sheik Hassan Ezzeddine, Hezbollah's senior political officer in south Lebanon, said Hezbollah would resume attacks if Israel breached the U.N. resolution.

``The (Israeli) enemy must bear the consequences of its continued air, sea and land violations in Lebanon,'' Ezzeddine said.

The disputed Chebaa Farms area near the borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria, is also still held by Israeli forces. The U.N. resolution that outlined the truce had directed the U.N. secretary-general to come up with a proposal to delineate the borders in the area within a now-elapsed 30 days.

After midnight on Sunday, the roar of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles could be heard from inside Lebanon as they crossed into Israel. An armored column creaked across the border into the community of Moshav Avivim, sending clouds of dust into the air.

Israeli military officials said the last soldiers returned to Israel around 2:30 a.m., ahead of the onset of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Israeli forces abandoned their hilltop position near the village of Marwaheen early Sunday. The state-run news agency said Israeli forces also vacated nine other positions along the border, but an unspecified number of soldiers remained in the Lebanese section of the divided village of Ghajar.

The chief of the U.N. force in Lebanon, France's Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, said in a statement, ``Significant progress has been achieved today.''

The Lebanese government had no immediate comment on Sunday's pullout, but has demanded an end to the surveillance flights and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Chebaa Farms.

After Israel abandoned its position near the village of Marwaheen people came to inspect the area. Seeing a chance to make a little money, a group of men in a pickup truck grabbed some discarded tires.

Several Ghanian soldiers in a white U.N. armored personnel carrier photographed the site, apparently verifying the Israeli withdrawal.

Two Lebanese plainclothes military intelligence officers also surveyed the area and a member of Amal, the Shiite group allied to Hezbollah, came by to take a look.

Village farmers were glad to see the troops gone. ``May God never bring them back,'' said Mohammed Musseileh, 67. His 65-year-old brother Salem, also a farmer, added: ``They are a treacherous enemy. They could be back anytime.''

But there were no celebrations like those that followed Israel's pullout in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation along a strip of border. Residents' muted response may owe to the relatively limited and brief Israeli presence during the July 12-Aug. 14 fighting this summer, which left more than 150 Israelis and 850 Lebanese dead.

Israel has been gradually withdrawing troops since the cease-fire went into effect, from a peak of 30,000 during the fighting to several hundred soldiers. The Israeli naval blockade of Lebanon ended more than three weeks ago.

Israeli officials had been reluctant to withdraw the last of the troops. They cited disagreements over the deployment of Lebanese and U.N. forces in southern Lebanon, which has long been a stronghold of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas.

Israel is concerned about the force's ability to prevent Hezbollah from rearming.

The U.N. resolution that ended the fighting calls for 15,000 peacekeepers to work with an equal number of Lebanese soldiers to prevent another outbreak of hostilities. It mandates a full Israeli pullout and requires the south be kept weapons-free except for arms approved by the Lebanese government.

Some 10,000 Lebanese soldiers and more than 5,000 U.N. troops have been deployed in the south.