BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hundreds of Lebanese army troops rolled into several southern villages Tuesday after Israeli soldiers withdrew from five of them, slow but steady steps toward fulfilling a U.N.-brokered peace plan that came as U.N. chief Kofi Annan worked to broker a deal he hopes will convince Israel to lift its blockade.
Turkey became the latest country poised to send troops to the international peacekeeping force that is monitoring a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. Ruling party lawmakers there voted in favor of the deployment despite objections from opposition parties and street protests by thousands of people.
Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told The Associated Press the deal to lift the blockade — if agreed — would entail deploying French, Italian, Greek and later German ships to patrol the Lebanese coastline. Such a move could providing assurances to Israel that its arms embargo on Hezbollah guerrillas would still be enforced.
Annan "has said time and time again that he calls on Israel to lift the blockade, it is strangling the country. He expects them to cooperate," Fawzi said. "The Secretary General has suggested that those with fleets already in the area, France, Italy and Greece, could deploy for two weeks until Germany is able to."
Germany has ruled out sending combat troops to serve in the planned 15,000-strong U.N. force in southern Lebanon, but has suggested it could send warships to patrol Lebanon's coast.
Annan discussed the issue by telephone with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Saniora, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French President Jacques Chirac, Fawzi said.
Israel has said that it would lift the blockade only after protections are in place to prevent the Hezbollah militants from getting more arms. Israel has allowed some commercial flights into Beirut airport and some aid flights and aid cargo ships despite the blockade.
Speaking in Alexandria, Egypt on the last leg of a Mideast tour, Annan said he expected "some constructive and positive news" on the embargo within two days.
Annan stopped afterward in Turkey, where many regard the Lebanon peacekeeping mission as a dangerous venture that could lead to clashes with fellow Muslims. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party insisted on contributing to the expanded U.N. force, arguing it would raise European Union-membership aspirant Turkey's profile on the international stage.
In Lebanon, meanwhile, top police intelligence officer Lt. Col. Samir Shehade, who had been investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was wounded in a remote-controlled roadside bomb blast that killed four other people traveling in his two-vehicle convoy in Rmaile, near the Mediterranean port city of Sidon.
The motive behind the attack was unknown, but the attempt on Shehade raised the specter that Lebanon might be in for another round of politically inspired attacks. Some critics of Syria have accused its regime in the past of using such attacks — including Hariri's February 2005 slaying in a car bombing that killed 21 others — to intimidate Lebanese leaders. Protests and international pressure in the aftermath of Hariri's death forced Syria to withdrawal its 29,000 troops from Lebanon last year.
Acting Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat told reporters Tuesday's attack on Shehade might have been aimed at Lebanese security forces, who are deploying to south Lebanon under a U.N.-brokered cease-fire deal that ended a month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas Aug. 14. However, it was not known who carried out the attack.
Lebanese army troops are supposed to deploy in the south with a beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force as Israeli troops withdraw.
A statement Tuesday from the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL said Israeli troops pulled out of five small villages in southeast Lebanon near the larger town of Bint Jbail. The villages included Beit Lif, al-Qawzah, Dibel, Ein Ibel and Mhaibeb.
A contingent of U.N. peacekeepers from Ghana moved in, setting up seven new checkpoints in the area and carrying out patrols, UNIFIL said. They were followed by around 250 Lebanese soldiers who moved into the areas, including al-Qawzah, Dibel, Ein Ibel, according to witnesses and Lebanon's state-run National News Agency.
The Israeli army spokesman's office confirmed that troops had pulled out of the towns and surrounding areas, and said the withdrawal would continue in stages in coming days.
Also Tuesday, 120 Lebanese soldiers who had been manning checkpoints on the outskirts of Bint Jbail moved into the devastated town's center for the first time, traveling aboard armored personnel carriers, trucks and jeeps. Bint Jbail was the scene of fierce ground fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas and large parts of the town are in ruins.
Lebanese troops also deployed in the nearby villages of Ainata and Aitaroun, where witnesses said dancing women showered them with rice and some men slaughtered sheep to fete their arrival.
Alexander Ivanko, spokesman for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL, declined to say how much territory in Lebanon is still controlled by the Israel.
The bulk of the Israeli invasion force that invaded last month is believed to have pulled out already. Left behind: small pockets of troops and tanks scattered in small numbers across the south, some on strategic hilltops and with Israeli flags flying. They are rarely seen and in some villages residents say they only come out at night in tanks resupplying villas or buildings they occupy.
The beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon is expected to swell from 2,000 to 15,000 troops. About 1,250 Italian and French troops have already arrived, boosting the force's strength to 3,250. Under a U.N. Security Council mandate, the peacekeeping mission known as UNIFIL is deploying throughout the south with an equal number of Lebanese soldiers as Israeli forces withdraw.
Also Tuesday, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in comments published Tuesday that he does not regret the capture last month of two Israeli soldiers July 12, an event that sparked an Israeli invasion and 34 days of fighting that ended Aug. 14 and left swathes of south Beirut and southern Lebanon in ruins. At least 855 Lebanese and 159 Israelis were killed and Lebanese officials say the country will need about $3.5 billion to repair buildings, bridges and other destroyed infrastructure.
"The capture was exploited (by the Israelis) for the timing of the war ... but we think it hastened a war that was going to happen anyway and this was to our advantage and the advantage of Lebanon," Nasrallah said in an interview with the leftist daily As-Safir newspaper. "I say we did not make a mistake in judgment. Our calculations were correct and we do not regret it."