KFAR KILA, Lebanon – The Lebanese army reached the country's southern border with Israel for the first time in decades Friday, sending a lone jeep on patrol through Kfar Kila, a battered stronghold of support for Hezbollah militants.
Meanwhile, Israeli drones and warplanes were crisscrossing the skies above Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley on Friday night, near the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek, security officials said.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release information to reporters, said there had been anti-aircraft fire to drive off the aircraft but no weapons fired by the Israeli drones and jet fighters.
Italy became the latest nation to agree to provide troops for a stronger U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, but it didn't say how many, underlining the slowness of efforts to beef up the mission. Finland said it would send 250 soldiers in a few months.
U.N. officials said nearly all the Lebanese who fled the month of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel had left shelters and headed home, where there was an urgent need for food, water and material for temporary shelters.
The army jeep in Kfar Kila, flying a Lebanese flag and carrying two soldiers in green camouflage, passed by the Fatima Gate a few yards from the border but did not stop. The village is the last spot where Israeli troops pulled out in 2000 after an 18-year occupation of the south.
On Friday, young men there hung giant yellow banners above intersections, some criticizing U.S. Mideast policy and others reading "The Great Lebanon has defeated the murderers." Both were signed by Hezbollah.
Five days into a cease-fire between Israel and the militant group, there was still no firm date for a deployment of the enhanced international peacekeeping force of up to 15,000 soldiers that it supposed to join an equal number of Lebanese troops under the U.N. peace plan.
The United Nations had pledges of 3,750 soldiers for the force, with Bangladesh making the largest offer, of up to 2,000.
Across the devastated south, villagers, many of whom support the Shiite Muslim militants of Hezbollah, have been throwing rice and waving banners to welcome the army to the region after a nearly 40-year absence.
So far Lebanese troops have deployed mostly to predominantly Christian towns, including Qleia and Marjayoun.
Overnight, Lebanese soldiers arrived in the largely Shiite Muslim village of Khiam in the same area, Lebanese Brig. Gen. Charles Sheikhani said. Kfar Kila is a mixed Muslim and Christian village.
The Lebanese army's 10th Brigade has set up camps within a mile of the Israeli border — a key step toward taking control of the whole country for the first time since 1968 and a major demand of the U.N. resolution that so far has halted the fighting.
The deployment marks the first time the Lebanese army has moved in force to a region that was held by Palestinian guerrillas in the 1970s and by Hezbollah since Israeli troops withdrew from the area in 2000.
"We are all very happy," Sheikhani said. "It's our country, and this is the first time we've really been in south Lebanon."
U.N. officials said peacekeepers set up checkpoints in two southern towns that saw fierce fighting — Yater and Hadatha — after Israeli troops withdrew.
And a Lebanese military official said the army has begun setting up checkpoints near dozens of illegal border crossings with Syria and Israel in a bid to help prevent arms smuggling in the region.
Preventing arms supplies from reaching Hezbollah guerrillas is a key demand of last week's U.N. cease-fire resolution.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information to the media.
Sheikhani said he would not deploy troops permanently to Kfar Kila until a border fence destroyed by Israeli troops last month was repaired and all Israeli soldiers there withdrew.
An Associated Press reporter visited the town Thursday and early Friday and saw no Israeli troops. Residents said Israeli forces had pulled out.
The area is in ruins. It is difficult to find a building not blackened, pockmarked by shrapnel or flattened altogether. Wreckage strews the streets, but new Hezbollah flags flap in the wind over piles of rubble.
Christiane Berthiaume of the World Food Program said the U.N. agency had shipped 334 truckloads of supplies within Lebanon, enough to feed a half-million people for two weeks.
"We estimate that 200,000 displaced people have returned to south Lebanon and another 200,000 to other areas south of the capital, Beirut," she said. "At this rate, everyone will be home in a week to 10 days. But at the same time people will be going back to nothing. Many houses have been destroyed."
Questions lingered over how quickly the U.N. peacekeeping force can deploy.
France, which was expected to lead the mission, offered just 400 soldiers Thursday, including 200 already in Lebanon as part of the current U.N. force. French officials said the additional troops would head to the region Sunday.
France's announcement of such a small number focused attention on the concerns of many countries that the U.N. had not yet set clear rules of engagement for troops in the force.
Even though the Israel withdrawal and handover to U.N. peacekeepers has gone well so far, France and some other nations are concerned about avoiding confrontation with Hezbollah or being caught in the middle of a future conflict.
"You can't send in men and tell them: 'Look at what is going on, (but) you don't have the right to defend yourself or to shoot,'" French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said in an interview Friday with French radio RTL.
A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, Denis Simonneau, reiterated Friday that France could send more troops at a later stage. Alliot-Marie said she would keep 1,700 other soldiers who had providing aid and helping with evacuations mobilized in the region.
Germany, uneasy because of its Nazi past about any possible military confrontation with Israeli soldiers, said it wouldn't send any ground troops but was willing to provide naval units to patrol the coast.
The U.N. cease-fire resolution called for the force to keep the peace and disarm Hezbollah fighters south of the Litani River.
However, the Lebanese government adopted a mandate Wednesday that requires confiscation of Hezbollah arms only if carried in public. It said nothing about the network of Hezbollah rocket bunkers across the 18-mile stretch between the river and the Israeli border.
In the town of Qana, 14 adults and 15 children who reportedly were killed by an Israeli airstrike July 30 were buried during a mass funeral, one of several that took place in southern Lebanon. One street banner read: "These people are heroes. They woke up the world."
Two Hezbollah fighters were also buried in Qana, where dozens of cars drove around town with Hezbollah flags.
At least 845 Lebanese were killed in the 34-day war: 743 civilians, 34 soldiers and 68 Hezbollah. Israel says it killed about 530 guerrillas. On the Israeli side, 157 were killed — 118 soldiers and 39 civilians, many from the 3,970 Hezbollah rocket strikes. The figures were compiled by The Associated Press, mostly from government officials on both sides.