Hizbullah fighters go to ground as Lebanese army rolls into the south

Posted in Broader Middle East | 18-Aug-06 | Author: Declan Walsh| Source: Guardian (UK)

Lebanese soldiers arrive at the port of Tyre, Lebanon.

· Israel transfers control of half of captured territory
· Disarming rebels likely to be sticking point

Several thousand Lebanese soldiers fanned across the shattered south yesterday in a major step towards cementing the four-day-old ceasefire with Israel.

Tanks, troops and armoured vehicles trundled across temporary bridges spanning the Litani River pressing towards territory vacated by the Israeli army.

By late afternoon, the United Nations confirmed that more than 1,600 soldiers had deployed along the major eastern and western routes between the Litani and the border. The Israeli army said it had "transferred responsibility" for half the ground it captured during the 34-day conflict.

In some places, war weary civilians lined the roads, showering the convoy with rice and roaring encouragement. But most simply greeted it with sighs of quiet relief.

After a ferocious conflict that claimed 845 Lebanese and 145 Israeli lives, Muhammad Ghassanil, 66, said the neatly uniformed troops carried his hopes for peace. "Now this is a political problem. If the politicians work well then the army will be successful," he said.

The capital, Beirut, also saw signs of a return to normality. Two commercial flights landed at the national airport, signalling the end of the air blockade imposed when Israeli bombers hit the airfield five weeks ago. Scheduled flights are to resume next week.

A naval embargo intended to stem the flow of Iranian and Syrian weapons to Hizbullah was still in place, but humanitarian ships are being allowed to dock.

The deployment marks the Lebanese army's first significant presence in the south in almost 40 years. In Tyre, soldiers handed out leaflets warning of the dangers of unexploded ordnance.

Hizbullah fighters and officials, who in previous days confidently strolled the southern streets directing traffic and clearing rubble-strewn streets, appeared to have melted away. But the guerrilla group's presence was strongly felt in other ways. The yellow Hizbullah flag fluttered from vehicles on the hilly roads, while in Beirut, men in black fatigues and green berets buried two brothers.

"The weapons of faith and piety ... have defeated the world's greatest Satan," Sami Meslemani told mourners for his sons, Hasan and Ali.

The deployment was proceeding "perfectly", said battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Walid Borkoche, standing near a column of armoured troop carriers outside Jouiya. "I hope this will be a positive step for the peace process in this area and in the Middle East."

His troops would facilitate humanitarian operations and "prevent any other military presence in the area", he said. But on the question of disarming Hizbullah, he replied: "I can't answer that."

Lebanese officials said they expected one-third of a 15,000-strong force to deploy by the weekend.

Israel, the US and the UN insist all guerrillas must surrender their weapons and vacate the area south of the Litani. "Anything less would mean that the resolution is not being implemented," said Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev. But the Hizbullah leadership warns it is "too early" to talk of disarmament and the Lebanese government has agreed not to press the issue.

Instead, fighters are expected to remain out of sight and stash their weapons - a tactic many Shia Muslims, who regard the fighters as heroes, agree with.

"The Islamic resistance was born in this area. They know our pain," said Mahmoud Kiki, 47, as he watched government soldiers leap from a truck in Shebiye. "They know the secret roads and shortcuts and caves. They can fight Israel more effectively," he said.

Others were more ambivalent. In the cafe next door, Hussain Bazi, a 62-year-old refugee, requested the use of a phone to call for news of his home in Bint Jbail, 10 miles south. "How is my house? Is it destroyed?" he asked a friend. It was still standing, came the reply. "Thanks be to God," murmured Mr Bazi after hanging up.

He vowed not to return home until the soldiers rolling past the cafe had reached Bint Jbail. "Our army and cabinet should be fully in charge from now on. Not Hizbullah," he said firmly.