The Lebanese army reached the country’s southern border with Israel for the first time in decades, sending a lone jeep on patrol Friday through Kfar Kila, a battered stronghold of support for Hezbollah militants.
The army jeep, flying a large Lebanese flag and carrying just two soldiers in green camouflage, passed by the Fatima Gate a few yards from the border but did not stop.
Kfar Kila was the last village where Israeli troops pulled out in 2000 after an 18-year occupation of the south.
On Friday, young men there hung giant yellow banners above intersections, some criticizing U.S. Mideast policy and others reading “The Great Lebanon has defeated the murderers.” Both were signed by Hezbollah.
Pledges of U.N. assistance
Five days into a cease-fire between Israel and the militant group, there was still no firm date for a deployment of an enhanced international peacekeeping force of up to 15,000 soldiers, who are supposed to join an equal number of Lebanese troops.
The United Nations had pledges of 3,750 soldiers for the force, with Bangladesh making the largest offer, of up to 2,000.
France offered just 400, including 200 already in Lebanon as part of the current U.N. force. French officials said that the additional troops would head to the region Sunday.
Italy’s government formally agreed Friday to send peacekeeping troops, but Premier Romano Prodi said the number hadn’t been determined.
Across the devastated south, villagers, many of whom support Shiite Muslim Hezbollah fighters, have been throwing rice and waving banners to welcome the army to the region after a nearly 40-year absence.
So far Lebanese troops have deployed mostly to predominantly Christian towns, including Qleia and Marjayoun.
But overnight, Lebanese soldiers arrived in the largely Shiite Muslim village of Khiam in the same area, Lebanese Brig. Gen. Charles Sheikhani said. Kfar Kila is a mixed Muslim and Christian village.
Elsewhere, the Lebanese army’s 10th Brigade has set up camps within a mile of the Israeli border — a key step toward taking control of the whole country for the first time since 1968 and a major demand of the U.N. resolution that so far has halted the fighting.
The deployment marks the first time the Lebanese army has moved in force to a region that was held by Palestinian guerrillas in the 1970s and by Hezbollah since Israeli troops withdrew from the area in 2000.
“We are all very happy,” Sheikhani said. “It’s our country, and this is the first time we’ve really been in south Lebanon.”
Sheikhani said he would not deploy troops permanently to Kfar Kila until a border fence destroyed by Israeli troops last month was repaired and all Israeli soldiers there withdrew.
No Israeli troops seen
An Associated Press reporter visited the town Thursday and early Friday and saw no Israeli troops. Residents said Israeli forces had pulled out.
The area is in ruins. It is difficult to find a building not blackened, pockmarked by shrapnel or flattened altogether. Wreckage strews the streets, but new Hezbollah flags flap in the wind over piles of rubble.
As questions lingered over the cease-fire, Finland said Friday it would send up to 250 peacekeepers, but they would not be deployed until November.
France was expected to lead the U.N. force, and its announcement of such a small number focused attention on the concerns of many countries that the U.N. had not yet set clear rules of engagement for troops in the force.
Concerns over rules of engagement
Even though the Israel withdrawal and handover to U.N. peacekeepers has gone well so far, France and some other nations are concerned about avoiding confrontation with Hezbollah or being caught in the middle of a future conflict.
“You can’t send in men and tell them: ‘Look at what is going on, (but) you don’t have the right to defend yourself or to shoot,”’ French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said in an interview Friday with French radio RTL.
A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, Denis Simonneau, reiterated Friday that France could send more troops at a later stage. Alliot-Marie said she would keep 1,700 other soldiers who had providing aid and helping with evacuations mobilized in the region.
Germany, uneasy because of its Nazi past about any possible military confrontation with Israeli soldiers, said it wouldn’t send any ground troops but was willing to provide naval units to patrol the coast.
The U.N. cease-fire resolution called for the force to keep the peace and disarm Hezbollah fighters south of the Litani River. However, the Lebanese government adopted a mandate Wednesday that requires confiscation of Hezbollah arms only if carried in public. It said nothing about the network of Hezbollah rocket bunkers across the 18-mile stretch between the river and the Israeli border.
Return of fiery rhetoric
The deep political divisions in Lebanon resurfaced Thursday with the head of the largest parliamentary bloc blasting both Israel and Syria in a fiery nationalistic speech to hundreds of supporters.
Saad Hariri, the leader of an independent, secular bloc that has opposed Syrian domination of Lebanon and is seen as an opponent of Hezbollah, accused Israel of “living off the blood” of Arabs and said Syrian President Bashar Assad was trying to sow strife in Lebanon. Syria and Iran are the main international backers of Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim guerrilla group opposed to Israel.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, when asked about Hariri’s speech, said: “Too often in the Arab world, people think that political legitimacy is attained by bashing Israel.”
At least 845 Lebanese were killed in the 34-day war: 743 civilians, 34 soldiers and 68 Hezbollah. Israel says it killed about 530 guerrillas. On the Israeli side, 157 were killed — 118 soldiers and 39 civilians, many from the 3,970 Hezbollah rocket strikes. The figures were compiled by The Associated Press, mostly from government officials on both sides.
In Beirut, the international airport reopened to commercial traffic for the first time Thursday 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, and a Royal Jordanian flight followed soon after.
The Israeli military said that it was coordinating the arrivals and that the air blockade had not been lifted. Middle East Airlines Chairman Mohammed Hout said the blockade was partially lifted to allow flights between Amman and Beirut. Airport officials said full commercial traffic could resume next week.