updated 9/5/2006 8:00:09 AM ET 2006-09-05T12:00:09

Lebanese troops moved on Tuesday into a town wrecked by Israel’s war with Hezbollah, as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he hoped for word on the lifting of an Israeli blockade on Lebanon within two days.

Troops in armored carriers, trucks and jeeps rolled into the shattered Shiite Muslim town of Bint Jbeil that was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon, witnesses said.

“We are very happy. No one can replace the state,” said 55-year-old Jamila Shami, who had been waiting with a Lebanese flag and a bag of rice to shower the troops with.

Troops were also to move into the nearby Christian villages of Ain Ebel, Debel and al-Qouzeh, which suffered little damage during the 34-day war that was halted by a truce on Aug. 14.

The U.N. peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, which is coordinating with the Israeli and Lebanese armies, confirmed that Israeli forces had withdrawn from Bint Jbeil and its environs.

A UNIFIL statement also said Israel had violated Lebanese air space eight times in the past 24 hours.

Annan predicts positive news
In Egypt, Annan said he was hoping for “positive” news on the lifting of the blockade that Israel has enforced on Lebanon’s ports and airport since the war erupted on July 12.

“I don’t want to raise any false hopes, but I hope that in the next 48 hours we will have some news on that, constructive, positive news,” he said after meeting President Hosni Mubarak.

However, Israel reiterated that the blockade would stay in place until Hezbollah was prevented from rearming.

“Israel will be able to allow unfettered access into Lebanon when the Lebanese army, augmented by the international forces, will be able to enforce the arms embargo on Hezbollah,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which led to the truce, bans other countries from supplying illegal weapons to Lebanon, but says U.N. forces can only help secure the Lebanese coast and border with Syria at the Beirut government’s request.

The government has prepared a formal request to the United Nations for such assistance, but an official source said it would not be submitted until the blockade was lifted.

15,000 U.N. troops expected
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said in a statement the embargo was on the way to being removed after a series of contacts he made late on Monday with Annan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Siniora said he had briefed his interlocutors on Lebanon’s complaint to the Security Council that the blockade violated Resolution 1701. He also stressed the role German forces would play in helping secure Lebanon’s coast at Beirut’s request.

Germany has pledged to send a naval force but is awaiting Beirut’s official request.

Annan has said Israel should complete its withdrawal from Lebanon once there are 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers on the ground, a target a UNIFIL spokesman said could be met in 10 to 14 days.

The U.N. force is set to reach an eventual 15,000 and will work alongside a similar number of Lebanese troops in a southern zone to be free of any Israeli or armed Hezbollah presence.

UNIFIL’s mandate does not include disarming Hezbollah, whose leader was quoted on Tuesday as saying his guerrillas would maintain a clandestine presence, but would not fire rockets at Israel and would only respond to a major attack.

“The situation in south Lebanon will return to the stability it has seen in the last six years except ... that the army will now be in charge of facing the Israeli violations and not the resistance,” Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah told the As-Safir daily.

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