Lebanon Sends Troops South

MARJAYOUN, Lebanon -- Lebanese troops, tanks and armored vehicles deployed south of the Litani River on Thursday, a key provision of the United Nations cease-fire plan that ended fighting between Israel and Hezbollah earlier this week. The deployment marks a first step toward extending government control in a region Lebanese troops have kept out of for four decades.

Ten armored carriers mounted on flatbed trucks drove across a newly installed metal bridge over the river at dawn, escorted by several military vehicles. The bridge was built by the army to replace a structure bombed by Israeli warplanes during the 34-day offensive.

Lebanon's Cabinet on Wednesday approved the plan to deploy army troops south of the Litani River, but the government said soldiers would not hunt down Hezbollah guerrillas in a bid to disarm the fighters who fiercely resisted the Israeli invasion.

"There will be no confrontation between the army and brothers in Hezbollah. ... That is not the army's mission," Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said after the two-hour Cabinet meeting. "They are not going to chase or, God forbid, exact revenge [on Hezbollah]."

The deployment, while falling short of UN and Israeli insistence on Hezbollah's disarmament, is major step in meeting demands that militants be removed from the Jewish state's northern frontier. The army deployment marks the extension of government sovereignty over the whole country for the first time since 1969, when a weak Lebanese government sanctioned Palestinian guerrilla cross-border attacks on Israel.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel was keeping its commitments in the UN cease-fire resolution and expected Lebanon to do the same. "That resolution clearly calls for the creation of a Hezbollah-free zone south of the Litani River, and anything less would mean that the resolution is not being implemented," he said.

Under the UN cease-fire agreement, which has been in effect since Monday, Israel was to transfer control of its positions in south Lebanon to the UN force known as UNIFIL, which would then turn them over to the Lebanese army. The UN plan calls for the Lebanese force to reach 15,000 and to be joined eventually by an equal number of international peacekeepers to patrol the region between the Israeli border and the Litani River. The government has been assembling thousands of troops north of the Litani during the last few days.

In Marjayoun, a key town near the Israeli border that was briefly occupied by Israeli forces during their incursion into Lebanon last week, flatbed trucks carrying a total of 20 Lebanese tanks arrived along with a dozen trucks loaded with troops and hoisting the Lebanese flag. The convoy drove through the destroyed part of the town.

Residents welcomed Lebanese troops in Marjayoun and nearby villages, a largely Christian area where Hezbollah's Shiite Muslim militants have little support. "I feel safer now," said Shadi Shammas, a 30-year-old Marjayoun native. "The army before was not like now. Now, if Hezbollah has guns, the army can take them, and that wasn't the case before."

"Today is a new beginning for us in south Lebanon," said George Najm, 23, from nearby Qlaia.