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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Lebanon Army Deploys on Border as Israel Leaves


Lebanon deployed its army on its southern border with Israel for the first time in almost 40 years on Oct. 2, vowing to reassert control in the area by stopping attacks and arms smuggling.

At a ceremony to mark the occasion, army commander Brigadier General Michel Sleiman called on his troops to confront any violations of an August 14 UN-brokered ceasefire that ended Israel’s 34-day war against Hizbollah.

The deployment “to monitor the southern borders and the maritime and territorial borders is meant to prevent aggressions as well as the smuggling of weapons and other prohibited items,” he said.

”I call on you to confront any Israeli aggressions and violations,” Sleiman told conscripts during the ceremony in which the Lebanese flag was hoisted on a hilltop in the border village of Labbouneh for the first time since 1970.

The Lebanese army did not deploy in the area for decades because of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants and subsequently Lebanese fighters, mainly from Hizbollah.

The deployment comes a day after Israel’s near-complete withdrawal of several hundred soldiers who had remained in south Lebanon for almost seven weeks after the ceasefire.

A Lebanese army officer told AFP Monday that at least 12 Israeli soldiers were still deployed on the Lebanese side of the Ghajar border zone in the east.

The Jewish state has said it will keep its troops there until security arrangements in the divided village are agreed with U.N. and Lebanese forces.

United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon commander General Alain Pellegrini said Sunday that he expects the last troops to have pulled out of Ghajar this week, in keeping with the U.N. ceasefire resolution.

But Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salukh charged that Israel “wants to provoke fresh trouble in south Lebanon” by holding on to Ghajar, inhabited by Syrian Alawites and which is a reputed bastion of drug smugglers and spies.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora expressed more confidence in a swift Israeli withdrawal. “The United Nations is dealing seriously with the issue of Ghajar and I believe it will achieve its objective, given our determination” to recover Lebanese lands expropriated on the edges of the village, he said.

Army spokesman Major General Saleh Sleiman told AFP that “by Monday afternoon, the government plan to deploy 15,000 troops in the south up to the border will be complete, except for the area of Ghajar.”

Troops had already taken up positions along the border, mainly in Marwaheen, Marun Ar-Ras, Adaysseh and Kfar Kila where about 100 soldiers backed by 10 armored vehicles deployed on the Fatima Gate sealed passageway, he added.

Security Council Resolution 1701, which put an end to the war, called for Israel’s complete pullout from Lebanon in tandem with the deployment of Lebanese army troops backed by additional U.N. peacekeepers, as well as the disarming of all militias.

While Hezbollah has agreed to abide by the mid-August ceasefire, it has resolutely refused to lay down its arms until it is satisfied Israel has ended its occupation of Lebanese territory.

After the end of the war, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said his group’s arsenal had increased to more than 20,000 rockets.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who along with regional ally Iran is a main backer of Hezbollah, has dismissed efforts to stop the flow of contraband arms to the Shiite militant group as “a waste of time.”
”If a real will exists to introduce illegal weapons, neither U.N. resolutions nor military deployment will be able to stop” their entry, he told Spain’s El Pais newspaper.

”What’s missing (in Lebanon) is a state in which all Lebanese consider themselves represented. If that’s accomplished, it will then be possible” to disarm Hezbollah, he said.

Analysts say plenty of room remains for disputes, with Hezbollah maintaining its arsenal and the Israel air force continuing flyovers of Lebanese territory and keeping a small number of soldiers there.
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