Lebanese prime minister vows army will restore control over south, confiscate arms

Thursday, September 14th 2006, 8:57 am
By: News On 6

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Lebanon's prime minister vowed Thursday that his army will confiscate any weapons it encounters in southern Lebanon, while the Islamic militant group Hezbollah accused Israel of ``flagrant violations'' of the month-old cease-fire. Israel denied it was violating the truce.

The comments reflected the tensions underneath a truce that has survived longer than many expected. The United Nations said the cease-fire was holding up well.

Hezbollah boasts its fighters remain in towns and villages near the border with Israel, highlighting the challenge faced by the Lebanese army and U.N. peacekeepers who are to patrol a buffer zone between the militants and Israel.

``I intend for the Lebanese army to prove its presence in the area south of the Litani River,'' Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

``We want this area to be under the army's and the Lebanese state's control. The army has all the authority to ban any armed appearances and confiscate those weapons,'' Saniora said.

Some 15,000 Lebanese soldiers, backed by an equal number of U.N. peacekeepers, are deploying in a zone between the Israeli border and the Litani River, about 18 miles to the north, to enforce a ban on Hezbollah weapons.

Saniora said the troops would not actively hunt for hidden Hezbollah arsenals, but he made clear his Western-backed government would no longer allow the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah to dominate the south.

The U.N. cease-fire calls for Hezbollah to eventually be disarmed, but neither the Lebanese army nor the U.N. troops want to provoke a confrontation with the heavily armed guerrillas.

Hezbollah's senior political officer in southern Lebanon, Sheik Hassan Ezzeddine, on Thursday defended the presence of guerrillas near the border with Israel.

``The resistance (Hezbollah) is part of the fabric of these towns and villages and it is present on its territory and among its population,'' Ezzeddine told The Associated Press. ``Hezbollah is there to defend Lebanon's rights. It is a legitimate right for any people whose territory is under occupation.''

Hezbollah fighters, who have controlled parts of southern Lebanon for years, are believed to be lying low and blending in with the local population _ as they did before the war.

Ezzeddine said the group was exercising ``self-restraint'' in the face of Israel's ``flagrant violations'' of the U.N. cease-fire and urged the international community to implement the resolution.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel was not violating the truce.

``On the contrary, Israel is doing everything it can to bring about the expeditious and full implementation of the resolution,'' Regev said. ``It's clear, however, that there are continued violations of the resolution on the Lebanese side. First and foremost, the two Israeli servicemen being held hostage have not been released. The resolution calls for their unconditional release.''

He also said that Hezbollah ``continues to maintain an armed presence in south Lebanon and continues to receive arms from outside sources in direct violation of the international arms embargo that the resolution specifically calls for.''

U.N. officials asked Israel to pull down a barbed-wire fence that Lebanon contends encroaches on its territory and said Thursday they would issue a complaint to Israel's military after four overflights by Israeli jets in Lebanese airspace.

Similar incidents have occurred regularly in violation of the cease-fire, and a Lebanese army statement said 12 Israeli warplanes had violated Lebanese airspace on Thursday.

Still, U.N. officials expressed optimism.

``The good news is that the cessation of hostilities is holding up very well,'' said Alexander Ivanko, spokesman of the UNIFIL peacekeeping force based in the southwestern Lebanese town of Naqoura. ``The situation is still tense, but it is stable.''

Israeli forces, which at their peak numbered 30,000 soldiers and penetrated 18 miles into Lebanon, have largely pulled back to a 2- to 3-mile-deep zone along the border, Ivanko said. Israel has said it plans to have all its troops out by around Sept. 22.

Peacekeepers from France and Spain are expected to move into the south in the next few days to reinforce the peacekeeping mission, joining Italians, Ghanaians and Indians already on the ground. The U.N. force is about 3,800-strong and should reach close to 5,000 by the end of the week.

Israel launched its military campaign July 12 after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack that also killed three Israeli soldiers. In addition to targeting Lebanese infrastructure, Israeli warplanes and artillery pounded Hezbollah strongholds south of Beirut and in eastern and southern Lebanon in an attempt to destroy the group's rocket arsenal.

Hezbollah responded by firing more than 4,000 rockets into northern Israel.

More than 850 Lebanese were killed, mostly civilians, and almost 160 Israelis died.

On Thursday, Amnesty International accused Hezbollah militants of breaking international humanitarian law by firing thousands of rockets into Israel and killing dozens of civilians during the war.

The human rights group called for a U.N. inquiry into war crimes possibly committed by both Israel and Hezbollah, but Thursday's report focused on the actions of the Lebanese militants. The group had previously issued a similar condemnation of Israel's military offensive.

Hezbollah rejected Amnesty's charges.

However, Hezbollah legislator Hassan Fadlallah acknowledged his group targeted civilians in Israeli cities, saying it was a response to Israeli attacks in Lebanon.

``We do not deny that we have bombarded Israeli cities, settlements and infrastructure. But this was always a reaction,'' he said in an interview by telephone with Al-Jazeera. ``It was a natural reaction. When a state is invaded, it must defend itself.''