KHARDALI (Reuters) â€” Lebanese troops deployed in south Lebanon on Thursday, linking up with UN peacekeepers to take control of Hizbollah strongholds as Israeli forces pulled back after their 34-day war with the fighters.
But plans to quickly send an expanded UN force to the region to cement a tenuous truce were dealt a blow when France said it would only contribute a token number of troops.
Hizbollah fighters melted away as Lebanese troops crossed the Litani River, some 20km from the Israeli border, to take over a region the army has not controlled for decades.
Dozens of people lined roads, waving red and white Lebanese flags and throwing rice and flowers in celebration. “May God protect you,” 64-year-old Khadeeja Sheet yelled at the passing soldiers. “We support nobody except for our army.” A UN-backed truce halted the fighting on Monday. The Security Council adopted a resolution calling for the Lebanese army and an expanded UN force of up to 15,000 troops to deploy in the south and replace Hizbollah and Israeli forces.
More than 100 Lebanese trucks, troop carriers and jeeps streamed across a makeshift bridge on the Litani to the mainly Christian town of Marjayoun, about 8km from the Israeli border.
UNIFIL said about 800 Lebanese troops had deployed in the Marjayoun area and some 500 around the town of Tibnin.
The Israeli army said it had begun “transferring responsibility” in the south in a staged process that was “conditional on the reinforcement of UNIFIL and the ability of the Lebanese army to take effective control of the area”.
More than 200,000 refugees have returned to the shattered south without waiting for the Israelis to complete their pullout and despite unexploded munitions strewn over the region.
Two children were killed by a cluster bomb explosion in the southern town of Naqoura on Thursday, UN officials said. There was no sign of Hizbollah fighters as the Lebanese troops moved south. Even unarmed members of the group seen on previous days riding around on scooters and giving instructions to people in the south had disappeared.
Hizbollah has promised to cooperate with Lebanese and UN troops, but has made clear it will not disarm or quit the south.
At least 1,110 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed in the conflict that erupted after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.
A passenger flight landed at Beirut international airport for the first time in five weeks, easing an air blockade of Lebanon that Israel imposed throughout the war.
An airliner of Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s flag carrier, flew in from Jordan’s capital Amman. A Royal Jordanian flight was due to follow. Scheduled flights are to resume next week.
An Israeli naval blockade remains in force, as part of an effort to stop Hizbollah from getting fresh arms supplies.
Israel also wants the Turkish military to impose an air and ground embargo to prevent Iran funnelling weapons through Turkey to Syria and then Hizbollah, an Israeli security source said.
Iran says it gives Hizbollah only moral support.
The UN resolution called for an arms embargo against Hizbollah, which fired nearly 4,000 rockets at northern Israel, but did not spell out how it would be enforced.
UN peacekeeping officials were to meet on Thursday with nations that might send troops to bolster the UN force.
France has said it is willing to lead the UN force so long as it had a clear mandate and sufficient strength.
But President Jacques Chirac said on Thursday that France would only send an additional 200 troops to join the force, disappointing some UN officials who had hoped for more.
The United Nations had counted on France to lead an advance contingent of 3,500 troops it hoped could be in place within two weeks.
Chirac left open the possibility that France might eventually provide more soldiers and said some 1,700 French troops positioned near Lebanon would be made available to the United Nations but would not be placed under UN control.
“The implications for our force generation process, were there not to be a strong core from a developed Western military, would be tremendously negative,” said one UN peacekeeping official. “It is highly unfortunate that this discussion is going on the day of our first formal meeting of troop-contributing countries.”