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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Refugees Return to Lebanon as Cease-Fire Holds

BEIRUT, Lebanon / DAMASCUS, Syria -- Thousands of refugees headed home to south Lebanon on Tuesday as a United Nations truce between Israel and Hezbollah held for a second day and Israeli forces began pulling back from some positions they had occupied.

The Israeli army, which had poured 30,000 troops into the south to fight Hezbollah guerrillas, plans to start handing over some pockets of territory to UN troops in a day or two, Israeli officials and Western diplomats said.

Israel's expedited timetable for withdrawing reflects concerns that its forces on the ground are easy targets for Hezbollah attacks. "They want a fast exit in one to two weeks," said a Western diplomat briefed by the Israeli army.

A Lebanese political source said the Israelis could withdraw completely from Lebanon as early as Wednesday and hand over all their positions to an existing UN force, paving the way for the Lebanese army to start deploying in the area starting Thursday.

Israel said it would not withdraw fully until a beefed-up UN force and Lebanese army troops deployed in the south.

Syrian President Bashar Assad said Tuesday that the U.S. plan for a "new Middle East" had collapsed after Hezbollah's successes in fighting against Israel. Assad, speaking to a journalists' association conference, said the region had changed "because of the achievements of the resistance [Hezbollah].

"The Middle East they [the Americans] aspire to ... has become an illusion," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said early in the war between Hezbollah and Israel that any settlement should be durable and lead to a "new Middle East," where extremists would have no influence. But after 34 days of fighting, a cease-fire brought a fragile truce, with Hezbollah surviving and Israeli forces unable to score a decisive victory. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has already declared "strategic, historic victory" against Israel.

The fighting in Lebanon had been planned by Israel for some time, Assad said, but the endeavor failed.

Assad defended Hezbollah and criticized a UN cease-fire resolution for holding the Syrian-backed militant group responsible for the violence.

"Israel is the one who is responsible," he said. He added that Israel's supporters in Lebanon -- an allusion to the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority in Beirut -- also bore responsibility. "The resistance is necessary as much as it is natural and legitimate," he said.

Assad said this war revealed the limitations of Israel's military power.

In a 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israeli forces surrounded Beirut within seven days of invading, he said. "After five weeks, [Israel] was still struggling to occupy a few hundred meters.

"From a military perspective, [the battle] was decided in favor of the resistance [Hezbollah]. Israel has been defeated from the beginning."

Assad also lashed out at Arab regimes, without naming them, who criticized Hezbollah for kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and starting the war. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan -- all allies of the United States -- criticized Hezbollah's actions at the start of the conflict.

"We do not ask anyone to fight with us or for us, ... but he should at least not adopt the enemy's views," Assad said.

Syria has been sharply criticized by Washington, and U.S. officials have called on Damascus and its ally, Iran, to withdraw support for Hezbollah. Syria has rejected such demands.

The Syrian leader said U.S. participation was needed for a peace settlement in the Middle East, but that peace could not be achieved under the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.

"This is an administration that adopts the principle of preemptive war that is absolutely contradictory to the principle of peace," he said. "Consequently, we don't expect peace soon or in the foreseeable future."

(Reuters, AP)