JERUSALEM – Israel's military chief said Tuesday he expects the army to fully withdraw from southern Lebanon by the weekend, ending a two-month troop presence there and bolstering the cease-fire that halted a 34-day war against Hezbollah guerrillas.
The withdrawal would complete the transfer of security responsibilities along Lebanon's southern border to the Lebanese army and a beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force that has been slowly deploying in the area.
Israel invaded Lebanon on July 12 after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border and killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others.
Since the U.N.-brokered cease-fire went into effect Aug. 14, Israel has maintained a limited presence in Lebanon, seeking assurances that the peacekeeping force is strong enough to secure the border and prevent Hezbollah from rearming.
Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told a closed meeting of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the conditions appear ripe for the pullout, said committee member Ran Cohen. He quoted Halutz as saying all remaining troops would leave by sundown Friday, the start of the Jewish New Year.
"He told me that this afternoon there is a meeting between the Lebanese forces and the U.N. forces and, if everything is OK, then all Israeli soldiers will be out of Lebanon by the eve of the holiday, on Friday," Cohen told The Associated Press.
At the height of the fighting, Israel had some 30,000 troops in Lebanon. The army refused to say how many troops remain, but Cohen estimated the figure at several thousand. Most are believed to be concentrated in three pockets along the border.
Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said he could not give a timeline for completing the pullout, but that Israel is committed to fulfilling all of its obligations under the cease-fire, including a pullback to the international border.
"When the Lebanese army and international forces are ready to move in, Israel will be more than ready to move out," he said.
Israeli security officials confirmed the Friday target. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Under the cease-fire, a 15,000-strong U.N. force is to deploy in the south to help police the border and assist the Lebanese army in re-establishing control over Hezbollah's southern stronghold. About 5,000 international troops already have been deployed in south Lebanon, along with 9,000 Lebanese troops.
Some 150 French troops and dozens of military vehicles left Beirut on Tuesday for the south. France is contributing the second-largest contingent of 2,000 soldiers and will command the U.N. force until early next year, when Italy is to take over.
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged lawmakers to back plans to send warships to patrol the Lebanese coast. Germany has offered to send up to 2,400 service personnel and lead a multinational naval force to prevent weapons smugglers from rearming Hezbollah.
Parliament is expected to give its approval Wednesday, despite misgivings related to Germany's Nazi past. Mindful of the Holocaust, the government has chosen the naval mission in an attempt to ensure that German forces cannot get pulled into any confrontation with Israeli troops.
More than 150 Israelis and 850 Lebanese were killed during the monthlong war. While the cease-fire has largely held up, Regev complained that Hezbollah continues to maintain an armed presence in southern Lebanon.
Regev also said the cease-fire's call for the unconditional release of the captive Israeli soldiers remains unfulfilled. "This is a grave violation," he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed a mediator to win the release of the soldiers. It is widely expected that Israel will release Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the soldiers.
Meanwhile, the U.N. urged Israel to hand over coordinates of cluster bombs fired by Israeli forces in Lebanon, saying its failure to do so was hampering efforts to remove them.
At least 350,000 unexploded bomblets litter fields, homes, schools, hospitals and playgrounds in southern Lebanon and could take up to two and a half years to clear, the U.N. said in a report.
Israel could greatly accelerate the clearance effort handing over strike coordinates but has not done so, said David Shearer, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon. "We have asked for them but they haven't yet been forthcoming. I haven't heard any explanation," he said.
Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said she was unaware of any official U.N. complaint over cluster bomb mapping.
The fist-sized bomblets have killed at least 15 people, including a child, and wounded 83 others wounded, 23 of them children, since the cease-fire, according to the U.N demining center.