BEIRUT, Lebanon – The Israeli army withdrew part of its force from south Lebanon Tuesday, and Lebanese troops were expected to start moving across the Litani River Thursday to eventually take control of the war-ravaged region with the help of U.N. peacekeepers, military officials on both sides of the conflict said.
Journalists witnessed about 500 Israeli soldiers on foot crossing over the border back into Israel near the Israeli town of Malkiya. Some of them smiled broadly, happy to be out, while others wept.
Also, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and France were to be in the Lebanese capital Wednesday, and it was widely believed they would work out details of assembling a 15,000-strong international force. Indonesia and a dozen other countries have also expressed a willingness to help.
That force would work with an equal number of Lebanese soldiers to police the cease-fire that took hold Monday morning and ended 34 days of brutal combat, Israeli airstrikes and Hezbollah rocket barrages.
France was expected to lead the force. The Italian foreign minister has already visited Beirut and subsequently pledged as many as 3,000 troops. U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hedi Annabi said the U.N. hopes that 3,500 troops can arrive in Lebanon within two weeks.
In the short term and before international forces arrive, the process involves three armies on the ground and is complicated, given that those of Lebanon and Israel do not have direct contact and a third and central player — Hezbollah guerrillas — will not be involved.
The 2,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, permanently in the 18-mile band of territory between the Litani and the Israeli frontier was to temporarily take up positions along the border.
The zone along the frontier would then be handed to Lebanese troops and the greatly reinforced UNIFIL force once all Israeli soldiers have withdrawn, the officials said, all of them speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the operations.
"It will be a gradual withdrawal. ... It will take couple of days, even up to one week," a UNIFIL officer told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
"We agreed with the Lebanese army that it will start deploying as the Israelis start withdrawing. It could be as early as Thursday, maybe a slight delay," he said.
Those plans, however, depend on the Lebanese government giving the order for the army to move south of the Litani. The Cabinet has been unable to meet on the issue in the two days since the cease-fire took hold because of deep divisions over what should be done about Hezbollah's arms in the south.
The arrangement that appears to be coming together among Lebanese politicians, military officials and Hezbollah would call not for the disarmament of Hezbollah but for the guerrillas to not carry weapons or use their heavily fortified bunkers to fire rockets. There would be no requirement to move the weapons north of the Litani, for the time being.
Lebanese refugees, meanwhile, continued streaming back to the south to learn what had become of their homes and livelihoods. Many of them found scenes of near total destruction.
At least 15 bodies more bodies were found in two villages near the border, Ainata and Taibeh. Lebanese authorities and Hezbollah sent teams across south Lebanon to clear unexploded ordnance from the battlefield. A 12-year-old girl was wounded when an object exploded in her village east of Nabatiyeh.
The newly discovered victims raised to at least 815 the number of people killed in Lebanon during the 34-day campaign, most of them civilians. Israel suffered 157 dead — including 118 soldiers.
Cars full of returning refugees, loaded down with salvaged possessions, began pouring into southern Lebanon just hours after the truce took effect on Monday morning. As they took stock of the wreckage, more refugees were expected to pour in from Syria, Cyprus and other havens during the war.
Israel said it would continue its blockade of Lebanese ports but was no longer threatening to shoot any car that moved on roads south of the Litani. Warplanes dropped leaflets north of the Litani warning refugees not to head further south, saying the situation "will remain dangerous" before international forces deploy.
Relief agencies struggled to move supplies to the south over bombed roads and others clogged with traffic. U.N. officials said 24 U.N. trucks took more than five hours to reach the port of Tyre from Sidon, a trip that normally takes 45 minutes.
Life in northern Israel began returning to normal, as soldiers left Lebanon and headed south, crossing paths with civilians traveling in the opposite direction, back to the homes they abandoned weeks ago under Hezbollah rocket fire.
Areas that were turned into closed military zones weeks ago were reopened to civilian traffic and the tanks, bulldozers and other heavy military vehicles that had lined the roads of the north were gone.
At one main junction, teenage girls handed out flowers to the returning soldiers, thanking them for protecting their homes.
In the battered Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona, residents emerged from their grimy bomb shelters and began cleaning up the wreckage caused by more than a month of Hezbollah rocket attacks.
As Israel began pulling out forces the first full day of a tense cease-fire that was tested by skirmishes and mortar. Israeli and Hezbollah forces did not respond, suggesting the truce would hold.
Hezbollah guerrillas fired at least 10 mortars overnight, but none crossed the border into Israel. It said two skirmishes broke out in which Israeli troops shot five guerrillas, though it was not clear if they were wounded or killed. A day earlier, six guerrillas were killed.
The Israeli military said early Wednesday that it killed the leader of Hezbollah's special forces, who they identified as Sajed Dawayer, just before the cease-fire took effect. But a Hezbollah official dismissed the Israeli report as "baseless," saying he had not heard of a Hezbollah military leader with that name.
Israel's military officials also made a first gesture at possible post-conflict negotiations. It said it has 13 Hezbollah prisoners and the bodies of dozens of guerrillas that could be offered in exchange for two captive soldiers, who were taken in a cross-border raid July 12 that touched off the worse Arab-Israel battles in 24 years.
Hezbollah's two patrons, Syria and Iran, proclaimed on Tuesday that the guerrillas had won the fight with Israel — a reflection of the two countries' boosted confidence amid Hezbollah's increased popularity around the Arab and Islamic world.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Hezbollah has "hoisted and banner of victory" over Israel and thwarted U.S.-led plans to forge a Middle East dominated by "the U.S., Britain and Zionists."
"God's promises have come true," Ahmadinejad told a huge crowd in Arbadil in northwestern Iran. "On one side, it's corrupt powers .... with modern bombs and planes. And on the other side is a group of pious youth relying on God."
In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad said the region has changed "because of the achievements" of Hezbollah and turned U.S dreams of a "new Middle East" into "an illusion."
Hezbollah put up a tougher fight against Israel than any Arab army has in the past, forcing Israel to give up ambitions to outright eliminate the force.
But it was forced to accept the deployment of the Lebanese army and international troops, which will deeply undermine the guerrillas' longtime domination of south Lebanon on Israel's border.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and U.S. President George W. Bush said that meant Hezbollah — and by extension, Iran and Syria — were the losers. "There's going to be a new power in the south of Lebanon," Bush said Monday.