MARJAYOUN (AFP) â€” “God bless them, they are coming to protect us,” said south Lebanon resident Mohammed as government troops proudly waving national flags took up position in the Hizbollah stronghold in the first such operation in decades.
People waved and cheered as troops crossed the Litani River on their way towards the border as part of a deployment of 15,000 men in line with a UN resolution which ended a month of warfare between Israel and Hizbollah.
A young sergeant raised the red and white cedar flag of Lebanon above the parade ground in Marjayun, a Christian town just seven kilometres from the border with Israel that was once the headquarters of Israel’s proxy militia the South Lebanon Army (SLA).
“The Lebanese people are waiting for you. We salute on the solemn day firstly the martyrs who have shed their blood on the earth of the motherland. And we salute the resistance,” regional commander General Charles Shikhani told his troops.
“The Israeli forces forgot that our army was supported by its people and by the resistance,” he added.
Shortly after dawn, a convoy of 15 armoured vehicles mounted on trailers had crossed a metallic bridge over the mouth of the Litani at Qasimiya which had swiftly improvised after the original was destroyed in the Israeli bombardment, an AFP correspondent said.
Troops erected a post on the bridge in Qasimiya, 30 kilometres north of the border, and two others further south at the entrance to the coastal city of Tyre.
Further southeast, 15 tanks and 10 military trucks were seen crossing the Hasbani bridge heading to the mountainous Arqub region. Some residents waved yellow Hizbollah flags as they welcomed the troops.
It was the Lebanese army’s first deployment to the south in at least three decades. The region had been under Hizbollah’s control since Israel ended a 22-year occupation in 2000.
“I am moved to see my army finally arrive and head to the south,” said Ghassan, another resident who would give only his first name.
The soldiers who deployed in Marjayun were the advance guard of a 2,500-strong brigade due to patrol the eastern sector of the border.
Shikhani said the troops would be stationed around Khiam, Ibl Saqi, Arqub, Shebaa and Kfar Shuba.
“We should deploy within 24 hours along the Blue Line,” the UN-demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel, he said.
The general expressed joy at the first army deployment of such magnitude in the border area in three decades. The area had been controlled by Palestinian fighters before Israel’s invasions of 1978 and 1982.
“What do you expect… we are extremely happy, this is our country,” he said.
The first phase of the promised troop deployment to the longtime Hizbollah bastion came on the fourth day of a UN-brokered ceasefire to end a month-long conflict that left more than 1,300 people dead.
The operation was expected to last three to four days.
The government troops are due to be joined by an expanded UN peacekeeping force.
The French commander of the existing UN force said he expected the first additional peacekeepers to start arriving early next week.
“We expect the arrival of the first elements at the start of next week, light elements,” General Alain Pellegrini said.
Â UNIFIL troops expected to start arriving next week
Â NAQURA (AFP) â€” The UN force in southern Lebanon is expecting the first elements of a reinforced peacekeeping deployment to arrive at the start of next week, its commander said on Thursday.
“We expect the arrival of the first elements at the start of next week, light elements,” General Alain Pellegrini told reporters at the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
“This UNIFIL will be very different from the previous one. The old UNIFIL is dead. The new one will be stronger, enhanced with more people and new engagement rules,” he said.
Pellegrini said it was not the responsibility of the new UN peacekeeping force to disarm Hizbollah and said there was a chance the Shiite group would take its arms out of south Lebanon to north of the Litani River.
The disarmament of Hizbollah “it is not a UNIFIL problem, it’s a Lebanese problem.”
“It is not for sure that they will stay with their arms in the south of Lebanon. They could go up with their arms north of the Litani River and, in any case, it is a Lebanese problem,” he said.
The Lebanese army on Thursday started deploying in force to the south for the first time in decades. That fulfills a key demand of a UN Security Council resolution that ended the fighting between Israel and Hizbollah and also stipulated that UNIFIL should be reinforced.
As UNIFIL sends reinforcements to boost its modest current contingent of just under 2,000 troops, Israel is slated to continue withdrawing its forces from southern Lebanon.
“I have hope that this will not take any more than two weeks. If the people are reasonable we should be able to get out of this, and they have been reasonable up until now,” said Pellegrini.
“There have been three constructive meetings, and you have the impression that people want to move forwards,” he added, referring to meetings UNIFIL has held with Israeli and Lebanese officers at the border post.
“But it is true that we have to move forwards as quickly as possible and we are not home and dry either from a provocation or from a misunderstanding.” Once the Israelis have departed, Pellegrini said, the role of UNIFIL will be to “help the Lebanese authorities restore their authority and control over all of south Lebanon”.
A spokeswoman said Thursday the Israeli military had transferred to UNIFIL half the zones it had been occupying in southern Lebanon, adding that this was part of a “process that will take place in stages”.
“In principle, the whole operation should take several days, but everything depends on the capability of UNIFIL and the Lebanese army to take control of the entire south of Lebanon.”