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Israelis pull out of small border area



Published: Fri, September 1, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



The U.N. says nearly 2,200 international peacekeepers are on the ground.

JERUSALEM (AP) -- The Israeli army turned over a small border area in south Lebanon to Lebanese and foreign troops Thursday, a symbolic move paving the way for U.N. peacekeepers to go into the volatile area.

The pullback came as an international donors conference in Sweden pledged nearly $1 billion to help Lebanon rebuild, after the country's prime minister told the gathering that Israel's war with Hezbollah wiped out "15 years of postwar development."

Israel sent up to 30,000 soldiers into Lebanon during the 34-day war, and when the fighting ended, they occupied a zone extending about 10 miles north from the border.

Since the U.N.-brokered cease-fire took effect Aug. 14, Israel has been slowly transferring control of the area to Lebanese troops, who will be bolstered by U.N. troops equipped with tanks, howitzers and other heavy weapons not usually seen with a peacekeeping force.

The armament is meant to deter all parties from resuming the conflict, and particularly is seen as a warning to the Shiite militants of Hezbollah, who effectively ran southern Lebanon for two decades and used it as a base to launch sporadic attacks on Israel.

On Wednesday, Israel's army withdrew from a small area of the border near the Israeli town of Metulla, putting Lebanese and U.N. troops in control of a section of the border for the first time since the early 1980s, the Israeli military said. The area was roughly 12 square miles.

What's been done

Lebanon said its army sent reconnaissance teams to the area Thursday and had begun deploying troops there. The peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, confirmed Lebanese troops were moving into the area and said small numbers of international soldiers also were deploying.

"Over the past 24 hours, UNIFIL established checkpoints and conducted intensive patrolling confirming this morning that the IDF [Israeli Defense Force troops] were no longer present there," a UNIFIL statement said.

Lebanese security officials said about 8,500 government soldiers were now in southern Lebanon, and the United Nations says nearly 2,200 international peacekeepers are on the ground.

Under the cease-fire, 15,000 Lebanese soldiers are to be joined by a similar number of international peacekeepers in patrolling the south.

Israel, which won't say how many of its soldiers remain in Lebanon, rebuffed a request this week from the visiting U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, to fully withdraw once 5,000 peacekeepers are deployed. Israel also turned down a request to immediately lift its sea and air embargo on Lebanon, which it says is needed to prevent Hezbollah from rearming.

After initial European hesitance over committing troops, the international force was quickly taking shape.

Some 1,000 Italian soldiers are expected in Lebanon over the weekend, the largest addition so far to the force, U.N. spokesman Alexander Ivanko told The Associated Press. Italy has pledged to send 2,500 in all.

In Paris, Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said France would send its first battalion of soldiers, along with tanks and heavy artillery, next week. The troops will be operational Sept. 15, she said.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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