Lebanese Forces Welcome Sight In South

Lebanese army soldiers flash the victory sign as the head down the highway towards south Lebanon in Damour, Lebanon, Thursday Aug. 17, 2006.
AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
Villagers throwing rice and Hezbollah supporters holding banners welcomed the country's army to south Lebanon on Thursday after a nearly 40-year absence, and the first airliner landed at Beirut's airport since fighting began more than a month ago.

South Lebanon is an area that until now has been controlled exclusively by Hezbollah, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger. The deployment marks the extension of government sovereignty over the whole country for the first time since 1969, when the Palestine Liberation Organization took control of the area to launch attacks against Israel.

Four days into a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, there was still no firm date for a deployment of an enhanced international force that is supposed to expand to 15,000 troops and join an equal number of Lebanese soldiers.

The United Nations got pledges Thursday of 3,500 troops for the force, with Bangladesh making the largest offer of up to 2,000 troops. But France offered just 400, and Germany — uneasy given its Nazi past of any possible military confrontation with Israeli soldiers — said it wouldn't send any.

France was expected to lead the U.N. force, and its announcement of such a small number focused attention on its demands for a more explicit mandate, including when to use firepower, and could affect contributions by other countries.

Even though the Israel withdrawal and handover to U.N. forces has gone well thus far, some potential contributors are believed to be concerned about avoiding confrontation with Hezbollah or being caught in the middle of a future conflict.

In other developments:

  • Italy has said it could quickly send as many as 3,000 soldiers to southern Lebanon to strengthen the existing UNIFIL force — 60 times more troops than its current contribution of about 50 — as long as a recent U.N. Security Council mandate for the force is detailed clearly, Italian Defense Minister Arturo Parisi said. ``When the points are made clear and Italy agrees with them, we'll be ready to leave half-an-hour after that,'' Parisi said in an interview with state radio. Italy has been trying to be a major player in efforts to end the fighting. A Cabinet meeting to discuss Italy's mission in Lebanon was scheduled for Friday morning.
  • Israel's defense minister Amir Peretz says the army downplayed the extent of the Hezbollah rocket threat when he took office, reports Berger. Peretz, who does not have a military background, has been sharply criticized for his handling of the war. A poll shows that 57 percent of Israelis believe he should resign.

    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.

    The deep political divisions in Lebanon resurfaced with the head of the largest parliamentary bloc blasting both Israel and Syria in a fiery nationalistic speech to hundreds of supporters.

    Saad Hariri, the leader of an independent, secular bloc that has opposed Syrian domination of Lebanon and is seen as an opponent of Hezbollah, accused Israel of "living off the blood" of Arabs and said Syrian President Bashar Assad was trying to sow strife in Lebanon. Syria and Iran are the main international backers of Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim guerrilla group opposed to Israel.

    Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, when asked about Hariri's speech, said: "Too often in the Arab world, people think that political legitimacy is attained by bashing Israel."

    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.

    In Beirut, the international airport reopened to commercial traffic for the first time since July 13 when it was attacked by Israeli warplanes and gunboats. A Middle East Airlines passenger jet touched down from Amman, Jordan, ending a 36-day Israeli blockade, and a Royal Jordanian flight followed soon after.

    The Israeli military said it was coordinating the arrivals, and that the air blockade had not been lifted. But Middle East Airlines Chairman Mohammed Hout said the blockade was partially lifted to allow flights between Amman and Beirut. Airport officials said full commercial traffic could resume next week.

    In southern Lebanon, about 2,500 Lebanese soldiers from the 10th Brigade set up camps within a half-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.

    "It's a ghost town here, except for the maybe 50 Lebanese army vehicles, all lined up on this main road," reports CBS News correspondent Kristen Gillespie. "They've got supplies, they've got water, they've got sentry posts, they've even got vending machines."

    As the Lebanese troops began spreading out along the frontier at the north end of Israel's Galilee panhandle, a convoy of eight U.N. peacekeeping trucks rumbled into Kfar Kila, just south of here, to take up positions that were held by Israelis before they began withdrawing. Those posts were to be transferred to Lebanese forces, mostly likely by early Friday.