Lebanese troops, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, begun early Thursday to deploy south of the Litani River in line with a United Nations cease-fire plan to end fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, a senior military official said.
The army deployment will continue for a few days "to spread Lebanese government authority over all Lebanese territory, including south of the Litani River," the official said.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make statements to the media.
Ten armored carriers mounted on flatbed trucks drove across a newly installed metal bridge over the river, escorted by several other military vehicles. The bridge was built by the army to replace a structure that was bombed by Israel Air Force warplanes during the 34-day offensive.
An Associated Press reporter saw about 40 military trucks and jeeps, carrying soldiers, equipment, luggage and plastic water tanks, heading to south Lebanon at around 4 A.M. (0100 GMT) Thursday. The trucks and jeeps hoisted Lebanese flags as they drove into central Beirut on their way to south Lebanon.
IDF begins handover to UNIFIL
The Israel Defense Forces has begun its withdrawal from southern Lebanon, handing over some of their positions to a UN force, the army said late Wednesday.
"Following a joint agreement of members of the IDF, UNIFIL and the Lebanese army, the process of transferring authority has begun," an army statement said.
Under a UN cease-fire agreement, Israel was to transfer control of its positions in southern Lebanon to the UN force, who would then turn it over to the Lebanese army.
More than 50 percent of the areas Israel holds have been transferred already, the army said. The area extends north and east of the town of Marjayoun and another area further west.
"The process will be carried out in stages and is conditional on the reinforcement of UNIFIL and the ability of the Lebanese army to take effective control of the area," the statement said.
The Security Council resolution authorized up to 15,000 UN peacekeepers to help 15,000 Lebanese troops extend their authority throughout south Lebanon, which Hezbollah controls, and called on Israeli troops to withdraw "in parallel." The aim is to create a buffer zone free of Hezbollah fighters between the Litani River, 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Israel, and the UN-drawn border.
There are currently some 2,000 UNIFIL troops in the area.
Lebanese cabinet will not force Hezbollah to disarmThe Lebanese cabinet on Wednesday accepted the Lebanese army's plan to deploy in southern Lebanon, and ordered 15,000 troops to depart for the area south of the Litani River after midnight Thursday.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was set to announce the imminent deployment late Wednesday.
According to the cabinet decision, Hezbollah will not disarm in southern Lebanon, but its members will refrain from carrying weapons in public. The agreement was reached following deliberations with Hezbollah representatives that lasted days.
The Lebanese government's decision contradicts United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, reached last week, which determines that the area south of the Litani River will be free of arms, aside from those held by Lebanese soldiers and UNIFIL troops. The cabinet made the decision after Hezbollah rejected all demands to disarm south of the Litani.
"The weapons of the resistance are the only ones, of all Arabs, that succeeded in standing up to Israel and defeating it. No one can take away the weapons of the resistance, certainly not by force," pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, who headed the cabinet meeting, said. "The Lebanese army will deploy [in the south] and will be for all the Lebanese," he told reporters.
Al-Jazeera reported Wednesday that Hezbollah rejected all proposals, including that it transfer its weapons to the Lebanese army, transfer its weapons to UNIFIL or allow the Lebanese army to search the organization's positions for weapons. A compromise was reached, according to which Hezbollah will not conduct military activities in southern Lebanon.
The government decision does not mention collecting Hezbollah weapons, but only that there will not be an "armed military presence" of Hezbollah in the south, or of any factor aside from the Lebanese army or UNIFIL.
Hezbollah's top official in south Lebanon, Sheik Nabil Kaouk, told reporters in Tyre that the group welcomes the Lebanese army's additional deployment in the south.
"Just like in the past, Hezbollah had no visible military presence and there will not be any visible presence now," he said.
That was the strongest indication that the guerrillas would not disarm in the region or withdraw, but rather melt into the local population and hide their weapons.
The United States welcomed the Lebanese decision to deploy troops. "It shows their commitment by a democratically elected government to holding the peace, to holding this cessation of violence, their willingness to act in accordance with the United Nations Security Council resolutions," State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters.
Halutz: IDF will halt pullout if Lebanon army not deployedThe cabinet, which includes two Hezbollah ministers, reached its decision only hours after IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said Wednesday that the IDF would halt its withdrawal from southern Lebanon if the Lebanese army did not deploy in the area within days.
"The withdrawal of the IDF within 10 days is dependent upon the deployment of the Lebanese army," Halutz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Commitee, according to a spokesman.
"If the Lebanese army does not move down within a number of days to the south... the way I see it, we must stop our withdrawal," Halutz added.
The army's deployment would be a symbolic force, a political source in Beirut said on Tuesday. Over the coming weeks the deployment will increase.
This will be the first time in more than two decades that the Lebanese army has positioned itself along the border with Israel.
However, foreign journalists in Lebanon expressed pessimism at the ability of Lebanon's army to confront any other armed force in the area. The notion that the Lebanese army will be able to deal with Hezbollah "is simply a joke," they said.
The Lebanese army's ability to wage war is indeed very limited. Israeli military sources said that army suffered a great deal due to the presence of Syrian forces in the country.
During Syria's years in Lebanon, the army's role was limited mostly to internal security functions.
In recent years the Lebanese army has not acquired any new equipment or arms. Most of its Western-made weapons are aging; Syria is providing Lebanon with some Russian-made equipment. Overall, the Lebanese army has a small number of tanks, armored carriers (both tracked and wheeled) and a few helicopters.
However, the significance of the deployment stems from the army's symbolic presence in the south of the country. Israeli sources note that during tense periods following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, the army dispersed demonstrations - including those of Hezbollah, Palestinians and extremist Islamic groups - in refugee camps throughout the country.
"The army could make the effort and be effective, but at the end of the day that is a political issue," Lebanese sources said.
The Lebanese army consists of conscripts. Until a decade ago its brigades were divided along sectarian lines, but following the Taif Agreements of 1989, which officially ended nearly 15 years of civil war, this has changed.
However, while sectarian divisions are no longer active in the army, its composition reflects a balance of power among Lebanon's various groups. Christians make up about 40 percent of the force. The remainder are Muslims, both Shi'ites (35 percent) and Sunnis (25 percent). Also, in an effort to avoid the development of ties between the army and local populations, the units are repositioned inside the country regularly.
In 2005 the Lebanese parliament decided to cancel mandatory conscription and transform the army into a professional force. The process is expected to be completed by next year, at which point the army will stand at 40,000 men. There are currently 50,000 soldiers, and 15,000 more reservists.