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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Hizbollah rooted in south Lebanon, but hides guns

KHIAM, Lebanon, Aug 17 (Reuters) - Armed Hizbollah fighters were nowhere to be seen as Lebanon's army deployed to the south on Thursday but locals said the Shi'ite Muslim group and its weapons were there to stay.

"Hizbollah are the people of these towns. They come from here. Where are they supposed to go?" said Yousef Younes, a retired merchant whose house in Khiam was damaged in the war.

"I have not seen any fighters. I see the lads from the villages. I don't know who is a fighter and who is not. I have never seen them pointing guns at anyone."

In Hizbollah strongholds around southern Lebanon, young men in civilian clothes have been helping clear battered streets or zipping around on scooters to keep tabs on all that happens.

Hizbollah was established under the auspices of Shi'ite Iran after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon but, as a guerrilla group, it draws its fighters from among ordinary Lebanese.

With 14 members of parliament, Hizbollah enjoys strong support among the mainly Shi'ite people of the south, who credit it with driving Israeli forces out of the area in 2000, ending 22 years of occupation.

Four days into a truce, many refugees returning home wave Hizbollah flags from their car windows and plaster them with pictures of its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, often despite having their homes or villages devastated in the 34-day war.

"No one will agree to taking away the weapons of the resistance. It is not possible for Hizbollah to leave the south," said Maryam Awada, an elderly woman in Khiam.

"No one liberated the south but them."


In Ghandouriyeh, 17 km (11 miles) west of Khiam, unarmed Hizbollah members packed green camouflage bags into the back of a car and drove off, shooing away onlookers.

Down the road, blood-stained Israeli uniforms, cans of food and spent rocket cases lay in the garden of a house where Hizbollah said it had staged an ambush.

Israel has said it wants Hizbollah to pull back behind the Litani River, which at some points is only a few kilometres from the border and at others more than 20 km.

Hizbollah agreed to let the Lebanese army move south to expedite the truce, but even Lebanon's defence minister has said the army would not try to disarm the guerrillas.

The U.N. Security Council resolution that halted the fighting stipulates that the south must be free of any armed group other than the army and U.N. peacekeeping troops.

People in southern Lebanon, both Muslim and Christian, Hizbollah supporters and critics, welcomed the deployment of the army, hoping it would help bring calm after decades of turmoil.

Carrying a bundle of clothes he had just salvaged from the rubble of his house in Debbine, Abdo Gharib said there had been fighters in the village. He had found stains of their blood.

"The man who lives over there had (Hizbollah) affiliations. They (the Israelis) hit his house but they hit ours too. What do we have to do with it?" he said, pointing to a damaged home.

"The army deployment is an excellent move ... We don't want to be victims of regional wars fought in Lebanon any more, but Hizbollah will not hand over its arms, not like this." (Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Ghandouriyeh)
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