Lebanese army prepares to move south

Lebanon’s army is preparing to move into south Lebanon as the United Nations plans to send an initial force of 3,500 troops to the region to enforce the truce between Israel and Hezbollah.


The Lebanese army will begin moving 15,000 troops south of the Litani river on Thursday in line with a UN resolution to end the fighting, a senior Lebanese political source said on Wednesday.


“As we speak, the army is readying the force,” the source said, adding that Lebanese units would stay out of areas occupied by Israeli troops until UN peacekeepers move in.


In New York, the UN has pressed ahead with plans to send troops from France, Turkey, Malaysia and Germany to southern Lebanon.


Hedi Annabi, an assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, told reporters on Tuesday: “It is our hope that there can be a deployment of up to 3,500 troops within 10 days to two weeks.


“That would be ideal to help consolidate the cessation of hostilities and start the process of withdrawal and of deployment of the Lebanese forces as foreseen in the resolution.”


A French general and colonel are scheduled to meet with UN peacekeeping officials on Wednesday to discuss a “concept of operations” – how the force’s mandate, set by the UN security council last Friday, would be implemented.


While several European Union nations have expressed interest in contributing troops, they are waiting to see what France – which is expected to provide the backbone of the contingent – will do before making any firm commitments.


In addition to the Europeans, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia are potential troop contributors.


“The French would like to know what others are prepared to do and the others would like to know what the French are prepared to do,” a UN official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the talks.


About 40 nations interested in contributing soldiers to the new UN force are meeting on Thursday to hear the rules of engagement.


Israeli officials said that the Israeli army plans to withdraw from southern Lebanon in seven to 10 days and to hand over some of its forward positions to UN troops within 48 hours.


The first step for UN troops is to consolidate the current shaky truce and help set up the phased withdrawal of Israeli troops as the Lebanese army deploys some of its 15,000 soldiers, with the support of the 2,000 member UN observation force known as UNIFIL.


A UN official said that the next step is to try to create a demilitarised zone between the Israeli border and the Litani river, some 20km north, after the Lebanese government deploys its troops in the south.


Once the Lebanese army controls most of the south, the aim is to implement a September 2004 resolution, which calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah.


This is to be done by the Lebanese army, assisted by UN troops. But Elias al-Murr, the defence minister of Lebanon, said the army would not disarm Hezbollah.

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