Israel to halt pullout unless Lebanon army deploys

BEIRUT - Reuters | 8/17/2006 12:00:00 AM |

Israel said on Wednesday it would stop withdrawing from south Lebanon unless Lebanese troops moved there within days, as diplomats worked on plans for a stronger U.N. force to bolster the truce

Israel said on Wednesday it would stop withdrawing from south Lebanon unless Lebanese troops moved there within days, as diplomats worked on plans for a stronger U.N. force to bolster the truce with Hezbollah guerrillas.

The Lebanese Cabinet was to order an immediate army deployment in the south when it was due to meet later in the day, a senior political source said, adding that a 15,000-strong force would start taking up positions south of the Litani River, about 20 km (13 miles) from the Israeli border, on Thursday.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, holding talks in Beirut, urged Lebanon to send the army south rapidly to move alongside U.N. peacekeepers into areas vacated by the Israelis.

"The withdrawal of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) within 10 days is dependent upon the deployment of the Lebanese army," Israel's army chief Dan Halutz told parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, 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 said. The U.N. Security Council last week adopted a resolution calling for a truce. It authorized up to 13,000 well-armed troops to augment the 2,000-strong UNIFIL force now in Lebanon.

The United Nations said on Tuesday it wanted to deploy up to 3,500 new soldiers in south Lebanon within two weeks.

"It seems to me vital that the deployment of the Lebanese army takes place as quickly as possible," Douste-Blazy said after meeting Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh.

Hezbollah, which fought an Israeli onslaught for 34 days until a U.N. truce took hold on Monday, has said it has the right to attack Israeli forces remaining on Lebanese soil.

"The presence of Israeli tanks in the south is an aggression and the resistance reserves its right to face such aggression if it persisted," Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, Hezbollah's top official in south Lebanon, told reporters in the port city of Tyre.

He said the idea of disarming Hezbollah guerrillas "was not on the table" -- especially with the Israelis still in Lebanon.

Hezbollah has shown no willingness to vacate the area south of the Litani, where its guerrillas have roamed for two decades.

The group has promised to cooperate with Lebanese and U.N. forces, but has made clear it will keep its weapons -- although political sources say it has offered to keep them out of sight.

Douste-Blazy said France, which might lead the strengthened UNIFIL, was ready to play an important role in the force, but said it was vital that many other countries contributed.

‘Lift the blockade':

Douste-Blazy also urged Israel to end an air and sea blockade imposed on Lebanon at the start of the war.

Israel has indicated it will keep up the blockade until measures are in place to prevent Hezbollah from rearming.

Two tankers carrying fuel were due to arrive in Lebanon, where the blockade has caused shortages and power cuts.

"Two ships have got permission and guarantees to dock today and one should be coming in tomorrow," said Bahij Abu Hamze, head of Lebanon's Association of Fuel Importers.

Hezbollah guerrillas killed:

Separately on Wednesday the United Nations peacekeeping force said four Hezbollah fighters have been killed in a clash with Israeli troops in Lebanon, despite the fragile U.N.-sponsored truce.  

"An exchange of fire took place between the IDF and Hezbollah in the area of Haddatha in the central sector yesterday afternoon," a UNIFIL statement said.

"UNIFIL patrols, which were on the spot shortly after, observed four dead bodies of Hezbollah members which were later taken away in an ambulance," it added.

The Israeli army said on Tuesday its soldiers had shot five Hezbollah gunmen in two separate confrontations in southern Lebanon, but did not say if they had been killed.

At least 1,110 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed in the conflict that erupted after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

In Tyre, hospital workers struggled to deal with an overflowing morgue, as more bodies were found in the ruins of buildings and other corpses remained unclaimed.

A temporary mass grave was dug in the city for more than 100 unclaimed bodies, but the burial was postponed.

"There are names which are not clear," said Dr Moustafa Jradeh. "There are people who want to bury them in their villages. If we bury them here it will cause a lot of problems."

The hospital had been planning a mass burial of 126 bodies in a grave near an army barracks unless relatives claimed them. Seventy-two corpses were buried there on July 21.

Israel may have ended its Lebanon offensive, but it continues to attack Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, where an air strike killed one militant and his father on Wednesday, witnesses and medics said.



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