Security forces move into south Lebanon

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The Independent Online

Jubilant villagers threw rice and distributed sweets to welcome Lebanese security forces into the former Israeli-occupied zone in southern Lebanon Wednesday. The deployment to a region torn by conflict marked the first show of state authority here in 24 years.

Jubilant villagers threw rice and distributed sweets to welcome Lebanese security forces into the former Israeli-occupied zone in southern Lebanon Wednesday. The deployment to a region torn by conflict marked the first show of state authority here in 24 years.

The 1,000-member force - 500 soldiers from the Military Police and Anti-Terrorism units of the Lebanese army as well as 500 policemen - started moving before dawn in trucks and jeeps into areas that had been controlled by guerrillas since Israeli troops withdrew in May under guerrilla fire and after the collapse of its allied militia.

"We have been waiting for you!" Antoinette Shahin shouted as the forces passed through her village of Qlaiaa on the outskirts of Marjayoun, the main town in the east. "We haven't slept all night!"

As the first convoy had arrived, Shahin quickly went into her grocery store, grabbed a bag of rice and ran out to spray the troops in a sign of welcome. Other villagers threw rose petals and passed out baklava, a sticky Middle Eastern treat.

A Military Police vehicle followed by four armored vehicles carried on two trailer trucks were the first to cross the former front line outside the village of Kfar Tibnit between what was the occupied zone and government-controlled territory at 6:10 a.m. (0310 GMT). More than 20 others vehicles followed, including a bus carrying policemen who flashed "V" for victory signs.

The units moved through narrow mountain roads toward Marjayoun, about eight kilometers (five miles) north of the Israeli border. Other units were headed toward Bint Jbeil, a major town in the west.

The Marjayoun base is in the former Lebanese army barracks that until May served as headquarters of the Israeli-allied militia and the Israeli army's garrison in Lebanon.

"This is a dream that we have been waiting for for 24 years," said 55-year-old Hannah Abu Hamad, a widow from Qlaiaa.

The Lebanese force's arrival was particularly welcomed among Christians, who have been anxious about the takeover of the Shiite guerrillas of their villages. The guerrillas, who leaders have pledged to cooperate with the government, kept a low profile Wednesday morning.

Qlaiaa and Marjayoun are inhabited by Christians in a largely Shiite Muslim region. Many of the men in the communities were pro-Israeli and they and their families were among some 6,000 Lebanese who have fled to Israel just before the troop withdrawal.

The deployment, albeit token in a region that makes up 10 percent of Lebanese territory where tension has continued after the end of occupation, will help fill a vacuum in state authority in the zone that has been controlled by guerrillas since Israel withdrew its troops on May 24.

U.N. peacekeepers moved into the former occupied zone Saturday - a step that Lebanon insisted on before its own deployment. But tension in the area continues to simmer.

Four people were wounded in the zone Sunday and Monday when Israeli soldiers fired at stone-throwers and youths preparing to hurl a firebomb over the border fence near Fatima Gate. Israel has repeatedly called on Lebanon to send its own forces into the south and warned it will no longer tolerate stones being thrown across the border.

Police Brig. Gen. Nazih Abi Nader, the force commander, said the security forces will not deploy at Fatima Gate.

"The mission is to set up base, carry out patrols and mobile checkpoints, spread state authority and conduct rapid intervention operations," added Abi Nader's assistant, army Col. Youssef Germanos.

Interior Minister Michel Murr had said the U.N. peacekeepers have the job of policing the border.

Lebanon has said it does not want to serve as Israel's border guard in the absence of a peace treaty between the two countries and between Israel and Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon.

Murr has also said there would be no armed guerrillas in the zone once security forces deploy.

The small force that moved in Wednesday marks the first time the Lebanese government has asserted control of the border areas of southern Lebanon since the mid-1970s, at the spark of a 15-year civil war that engulfed the entire country. The border region had been a battleground for Palestinian guerrillas and Israeli forces and their allied militias since 1976. Israel invaded the south in 1978 and again in 1982. It carved out the border security zone in 1985 before abandoning it in May.

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