Barak hints at faster withdrawal from Lebanon

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The game of brinkmanship triggered by Israel's decision to withdraw from south Lebanon deepened yesterday with a hint by Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, that he may complete the pull-out before his self-imposed 7 July deadline.

His remarks came despite the absence of any clear evidence that Israel is close to solving one of the most critical questions connected with the decision to end its 22-year occupation - the fate of its proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA). Critics of Mr Barak believe he has led himself into a trap, as he is irrevocably committed to pulling out - it was an election campaign promise - but faces doing so in hazardous circumstances.

That was underscored by the events of last week, when an SLA shell killed two Lebanese women, initiating an extension of violence that led Israel to bomb Lebanese power plants, and Hizbollah guerrillas to fire rockets into north Israel.

There is almost no chance of Israel leaving with the protection of a peace agreement with Syria and Lebanon. Yet Mr Barak appears to be accelerating the pace: yesterday his army was erecting new border fences in a kibbutz on the Israel-Lebanon border and the SLAblew up one of its outposts in the occupation zone.

The United Nations has made clear to Israel that it is expected to ensure the militia, which it has armed, trained and funded, give up all heavy weapons. If the SLA fails to do so the UN Security Council is unlikely to recognise that Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon complies with the terms of UN Resolution 425, as the presence of its proxy force will be deemed as a continuation of the occupation.

Israel is anxious for the UN to ratify its compliance with the resolution, which calls for its unilateral withdrawal, not least because this would strengthen its case for a ferocious military response in the event of cross-border attacks by Hizbollah or Palestinian guerrillas. According to the Israeli press it has begun to limit the transfer of fresh arms to the SLA.

The urgency of the problem was underlined when the SLA commander, General Antoine Lahd, issued a statement saying his troops could turn their weapons on the Lebanese authorities unless they were given a blanket amnesty. He said his force could emigrate, submit to Lebanese law, which defines them as collaborators, or fight on. Although his troops are disheartened, morale crippled by desertions and deaths, the general said they preferred the final option - "To carry arms to defend themselves from emigration, prison, humiliation and reproach."