Seven ex-SLA Men Return to Lebanon With Their Families

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BEIRUT - Seven former Israeli-allied militiamen and their families returned to Lebanon Wednesday from Israel, where they fled more than three years ago following the Jewish state's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, security officials said.

Relatives greeted the 17 returnees after they arrived in a United Nations bus that brought them across the Israeli-Lebanese border to the coastal town of Naqoura.

Lebanese military officials detained the seven ex-South Lebanon Army members for interrogation on charges of collaboration with Israel. Their relatives were allowed to return to their home villages in south Lebanon, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Israeli-backed SLA helped Israel maintain its 18-year occupation of a southern Lebanese border zone, which ended in May 2000.

The militia collapsed after the Israeli withdrawal. About 2,200 militiamen surrendered to Lebanese authorities or were captured. The rest, mostly high-ranking officers, fled with their families to Israel or other countries.

Of the estimated 7,000 Lebanese who fled to Israel after the withdrawal, more than 4,000 have returned to Lebanon.

Since June 2000, a Beirut military court has sentenced more than 3,000 people to jail terms of up to 25 years for collaboration with Israel. Some 82 former SLA militiamen have been condemned to death in absentia, mainly for killing Lebanese guerrillas who fought Israeli forces in south Lebanon.