Lebanese troops, tanks and armored vehicles deployed south of the Litani River on Thursday, a key provision of the U.N. cease-fire plan that ended fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. The deployment marked a first step toward extending government control in a region Lebanese troops have largely avoided for four decades.
In Beirut, the international airport reopened to commercial traffic for the first time since July 13 when it was attacked by Israeli warplanes and gunboats. A Middle East Airlines passenger jet touched down from Amman, Jordan, ending a 36-day Israeli blockade. A Royal Jordanian flight followed soon after.
MEA Chairman Mohammed Hout said the blockade had been partially lifted to allow flights between Amman and Beirut. Airport officials said full commercial traffic could resume next week.
Israel’s military said it was coordinating the arrivals, but said they were a one-time affair and did not constitute an end to the air blockade.
Meanwhile, the head of Lebanon’s largest parliamentary block blasted both Israel and Syria in a fiery nationalistic speech to hundreds of supporters.
Saad Hariri accused Israel of “living off the blood” of Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab people. He also accused Syria of trying to sow strife in its weaker neighbor, where it kept an occupation force for 29 years.
'No confrontation' between army and Hezbollah
Lebanon’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved the plan to deploy army troops south of the Litani River, but the government said soldiers would not hunt down Hezbollah guerrillas and would not try to disarm them.
In southern Lebanon, Lebanese troops in ten armored carriers mounted on flatbed trucks drove across a newly installed metal bridge over the Litani at dawn, escorted by several military vehicles. The bridge was built by the army to replace a structure that was bombed by Israeli warplanes during the 34-day offensive.
“There will be no confrontation between the army and brothers in Hezbollah. ... That is not the army’s mission,” said Information Minister Ghazi Aridi after the two-hour Cabinet meeting. “They are not going to chase or, God forbid, exact revenge” on Hezbollah.
The deployment, while falling short of U.N. and Israeli insistence on Hezbollah’s disarmament, is a major step in meeting demands that militants be removed from the Jewish state’s northern frontier.
The army deployment marks the extension of government sovereignty over the whole country for the first time since 1969, when a weak Lebanese government sanctioned Palestinian guerrilla cross-border attacks on Israel.
Relief goods poured into the country Thursday, but aid workers were struggling to move the supplies to the areas worst affected by the month of Israeli-Hezbollah fighting, U.N. officials said.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel is keeping its commitments in the U.N. cease-fire resolution and expects Lebanon to do the same.
“That resolution clearly calls for the creation of a Hezbollah-free zone south of the Litani River, and anything less would mean that the resolution is not being implemented,” he said.
Israel hands positions to U.N. force
Under the cease-fire agreement that has been in effect since Monday, Israel was to transfer control of its positions in southern Lebanon to the U.N. force known as UNIFIL, which would then turn them over to the Lebanese army. The U.N. plan calls for the Lebanese force to reach 15,000 and to be joined eventually by an equal number of international peacekeepers to patrol the region between the Israeli border and the Litani River.
President Jacques Chirac announced Thursday that France will immediately double to 400 troops its contingent in the peacekeeping force in Lebanon, which it leads.
In Marjayoun, a key town near the Israeli border that was briefly occupied by Israeli forces during their incursion into Lebanon, flatbed trucks carrying 20 Lebanese tanks arrived early Thursday along with a dozen trucks loaded with troops and hoisting Lebanese flags.
‘A new beginning’
Residents welcomed the troops in Marjayoun and nearby villages, a largely Christian area where Hezbollah’s Shiite Muslim militants have little support.
“I feel safer now,” said Shadi Shammas, a 30-year-old Marjayoun native. “The army before was not like now. Now, if Hezbollah has guns, the army can take them and that wasn’t the case before.”
“Today is a new beginning for us in south Lebanon, said George Najm, a 23-year-old from nearby Qleia. “We’ll need some time to feel safe but it’s a great start.”
Lebanese Brig. Gen. Charles Sheikhani, speaking outside the Marjayoun barracks where the Israeli military headquarters were based during Israel’s 18-year occupation from 1982-2000, said the entire 10th Brigade of 2,500 men he commands would be in charge of a region.
The troops also traveled to Qleia, where they set up a command post and surveyed damage caused by the fighting. Some soldiers sat under trees, smoking and drinking tea or coffee while they waited for orders. Officers said they were expected to fan out to surrounding villages on Friday. They also drove further south to the village of Bourj al-Moulouk.
The Israeli military began handing over positions to the United Nations early Thursday, stepping up its withdrawal from southern Lebanon. More than 50 percent of the areas Israel holds have been transferred already, the military said.
Hezbollah will not disarm
The Lebanese government ordered the army to “insure respect” for the Blue Line, the U.N.-demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel, and “apply the existing laws with regard to any weapons outside the authority of the Lebanese state.”
That provision does not require Hezbollah to give up its arms, but rather directs them to keep them off the streets.
The Cabinet session to implement the cease-fire was twice delayed because two Hezbollah members of the government objected to enforcement of the key U.N. demand that the guerrilla force be disarmed.
Hezbollah’s top official in south Lebanon issued the strongest indication yet that the guerrillas would not disarm in the region or withdraw, but rather melt into the local population and hide their weapons.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese death toll rose to at least 845 when rescue workers pulled 32 bodies from the rubble in the southern town of Srifa, target of some of Israel’s heaviest bombardment in the 34-day conflict. The death toll was assembled from reports by security and police officials, doctors, civil defense workers, morgue attendants and the military.
The Israeli toll was 157, according to its military and government.