Israeli military chief says all troops to leave Lebanon by weekend

Tuesday, September 19th 2006, 8:31 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel's army chief said Tuesday that he expected to pull his troops out of Lebanon by the weekend, which would meet a key requirement of the cease-fire that halted a 34-day war against Hezbollah guerrillas.

The withdrawal would complete the transfer of security responsibilities along Lebanon's southern border to the Lebanese army and a beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force that has been deploying in the area.

Israel invaded Lebanon on July 12 after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border and killed three Israeli soldiers and capture two others.

Since the U.N.-brokered cease-fire went into effect Aug. 14, Israel has maintained a limited presence in Lebanon, seeking assurances that the peacekeeping force is strong enough to secure the border and prevent Hezbollah from rearming.

Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that conditions appear ripe for the final pullout by sundown Friday _ the start of the Jewish New Year, said committee member Ran Cohen.

Israeli security officials confirmed the Friday target. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

At the height of the fighting, Israel had some 30,000 troops in Lebanon. The army refused to say how many troops remain, but Cohen estimated the figure at several thousand. Most are believed to be concentrated in three pockets along the border.

Mark Regev, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said he could not give a timeline for completing the pullout, but maintained Israel is committed to fulfilling its obligations under the cease-fire.

``When the Lebanese army and international forces are ready to move in, Israel will be more than ready to move out,'' he said.

Under the cease-fire, a 15,000-strong U.N. force is to deploy to help the Lebanese army re-establish control over Hezbollah's southern stronghold. About 5,000 international troops have been deployed in south Lebanon, along with 9,000 Lebanese troops.

Some 150 French troops and dozens of military vehicles left Beirut on Tuesday for the south. France is contributing the second-largest contingent of 2,000 soldiers and will command the U.N. force until early next year, when Italy is to take over.

In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged lawmakers to back plans to send warships to patrol the Lebanese coast. Germany has offered to send up to 2,400 service personnel and lead a multinational naval force to prevent smugglers from rearming Hezbollah.

The German parliament is expected to give its approval Wednesday, despite misgivings stemming from the country's Nazi past. Mindful of the Holocaust, the government has chosen the naval mission in an attempt to ensure that German forces cannot get pulled into any confrontation with Israeli troops.

More than 150 Israelis and 850 Lebanese were killed during the monthlong war. While the cease-fire has largely held up, Regev complained that Hezbollah still has an armed presence in southern Lebanon.

Regev also said the cease-fire's call for the unconditional release of the two captive Israeli soldiers remains unfulfilled. ``This is a grave violation,'' he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed a mediator to win the release of the soldiers. It is widely expected that Israel will free Lebanese prisoners in exchange.