Israel begins troop pullout from Lebanon

Israel began slowly withdrawing its forces from southern Lebanon on Tuesday and made plans to hand over its captured territory as hopes were raised that a U.N.-imposed cease-fire would stick, despite early tests on its first day.

Hezbollah guerrillas fired at least 10 rockets in southern Lebanon overnight, but none crossed the border into Israel. On Monday, at least six Hezbollah militiamen were killed by Israeli troops waiting for a peacekeeping force before beginning a full-scale withdrawal.

Lebanon was under intense international pressure to move its soldiers south into Hezbollah territory — a key element in the U.N. Security Council plan to end the 34-day conflict that claimed more than 950 lives.

Lebanon’s Defense Minister Elias Murr said the country’s contribution of 15,000 soldiers could be on the north side of the Litani River by the end of the week. But they still must cross the river and try to enact control over Hezbollah areas for the first time in decades.

Israeli soldiers smile as they walk down a dirt road returning from southern Lebanon in northern Israel near the Lebanese-Israeli border early Tuesday. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Israeli soldiers smile as they walk down a dirt road returning from southern Lebanon in northern Israel near the Lebanese-Israeli border early Tuesday. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

In Jerusalem, the Israeli army said it planned to begin handing over some captured positions on Wednesday and hoped to complete the withdrawal from Lebanon by next week. The plan for handing over territory showed the complexity of the border zone: Israel would transfer it first to the U.N. force, which would then turn it over to Lebanese envoys.

The army, meanwhile, said it had already begun thinning out its forces in Lebanon, but did not give figures. During a final ground offensive, about 30,000 Israeli soldiers were believed to be in southern Lebanon.

By Tuesday, there were no Israeli soldiers or tanks left in the key southern Lebanese town of Marjayoun, Lebanese security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give information to the media.

Israeli forces occupied Marjayoun on Thursday as they pushed deep into Lebanon in the final days of the fighting. The area is largely Christian and Hezbollah has little support there. But it has strategic value as it overlooks both the Israeli border and the Litani River valley.

Israeli troops also were pulling out of Bourj Al-Mulouk, a town on the road halfway between Israel and Marjayoun in the frontier’s eastern sector. But soldiers remained in nearby Qleia.

The Security Council blueprint calls for Lebanese forces to join up with another 15,000 international soldiers in a strengthened U.N.-backed military mission. Their job would be to patrol an 18-mile buffer zone from the Litani River in southern Lebanon to the Israeli border.

Murr said “there will be no other weapons or military presence other than the army” after Lebanese troops move south of the Litani. But he said the army would not ask Hezbollah to hand over its weapons — which remains an extremely volatile issue that no one seems ready to touch.

Murr said international forces could begin arriving next week to bolster the current 2,000-member U.N. force in southern Lebanon, which watched helplessly as fighting raged over the past month. Italy and France have pledged troops, as have mostly Muslim Malaysia and Turkey.

On Monday, the French commander of the U.N. force in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, told The Associated Press that additional troops were needed quickly and any “stray act” could unravel the peace plan.

The peacekeepers also must provide security for a huge reconstruction effort across southern Lebanon, where many villages were in ruins and even basic services such as water and electricity may take weeks to restore.

Cars loaded down with salvaged possessions began pouring into the area just hours after the truce took effect Monday morning. As people begin to take stock of the wreckage, more refugees were expected to pour in from Syria, Cyprus and other safe havens during the war.

Israel said it would continue its blockade of Lebanese ports but was no longer threatening to shoot any car that moved on roads south of the Litani.

Relief agencies worried about how to move supplies across southern Lebanon over bombed roads and others clogged with traffic. U.N. officials said 24 U.N. trucks took more than five hours to reach the port of Tyre from Sidon, a trip that normally takes 45 minutes.

Sweden plans to host an international donors’ conference Aug. 31 to help fund the rebuilding.

In northern Israel — hit by nearly 4,000 Hezbollah rockets — residents emerged from bomb shelters and slowly trickled back to their homes. A few sunbathers even lounged on the beach in Haifa, which was hard hit by the guerrilla attacks.

On Monday, both Israel and its main backer, the United States, portrayed Hezbollah as the loser — and by extension, its main backers, Iran and Syria. “There’s going to be a new power in the south of Lebanon,” Bush said.

But Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, claimed a “strategic, historic victory.”

Much of the Arab and Muslim worlds would agree. Hezbollah’s ability to withstand the vastly superior Israeli military — and hit back with deadly ambushes and cross-border rocket volleys — has given it heroic stature.

This could complicate any attempts to disarm or sideline the guerrillas — who also have 14 votes in Lebanon’s legislature and two in the Cabinet.

Nasrallah drove home the point by deriding Lebanese officials who have urged Hezbollah to give up its weapons. “This is immoral, incorrect and inappropriate,” he said.

The conflict left nearly 950 people dead — 791 in Lebanon and 155 on the Israeli side, according to official counts. An estimated 500,000 Israelis and about 1 million Lebanese, or a quarter of the population, had been displaced, government officials said.


Associated Press writers Sam F. Ghattas in Beirut and Arthur Max in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press