Lebanese Army Troops, UNIFIL Move Into Hezbollah Positions

Lebanese cabinet won't force Hezbollah militia to disarm; Hezbollah: We'll have no 'visible presence' in south.

Lebanese troops, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, Thursday deployed south of the Litani River in line with a United Nations cease-fire plan to end fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

The troops linked up with UN peacekeepers to take control of Hezbollah strongholds as Israel Defense Forces troops withdrew after the 34-day war.

The IDF said Thursday that it had begun "transferring responsibility" over southern Lebanon with the deployment of the Lebanese army in the area.

The 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, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make statements to the media.

The first troops of a 2,500-strong brigade arrived Thursday morning in the southern Christian border town of Marjayoun, and troops are set to deploy along the border with Israel within 24 hours, a top army commander said.

The troops arrived in Marjayoun, just seven kilometers from the border as part of the first deployment in decades to control the border area, long controlled by Hezbollah.

"We should deploy within 24 hours along the Blue Line," the United Nations-demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel, General Charles Shikhani, the head of the forces in the Marjayoun area, told reporters.

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.

More than 100 trucks and 10 armored carriers mounted on flatbed trucks streamed 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 war.

The column headed to the town of Marjayoun, around eight kilometers from the border. Some towed artillery pieces, others carried troops and equipment. A few UN peacekeepers watched them cross.

Dozens of people lined roads where they passed, waving red and white Lebanese flags and throwing rice and flowers in celebration.

"May God protect you," 64-year-old Khadeeja Sheet yelled at the passing soldiers. "We support nobody except for our army."

Other units crossed the river at Qasmiyeh to deploy in the area around the port city of Tyre, the sources said.

"What is better than this feeling we have today?" asked George Wanna, a 55-year-old father of four from the village of Qlai'a, one of the villages on the soldiers' route. "The army protects my home so that I can sleep comfortably."

IDF begins handover to UNIFIL The IDF confirmed said early Thursday that its troops have handed over some of their positions to the United Nations force operating in the area.

"Following a joint agreement of members of the IDF, UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] and the Lebanese army, the process of transferring authority has begun," an IDF statement said.

Under the 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 IDF 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 IDF 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.