(Video) The Lebanese army reached the country's southern border with Israel for the first time Friday, sending a sole jeep on patrol through this village which holds huge significance as the place where Israeli forces pulled out of in 2000 and ended an 18-year occupation.
The army jeep, flying a large Lebanese flag and carrying just two soldiers clad in green camouflage uniforms, passed by the Fatima Gate a few meters (yards) from the border in Kfar Kila but did not stop.
Villagers throwing rice and Hizbullah supporters holding banners have welcomed the country's army to the south after a nearly 40-year absence. About 15,000 troops are eventually supposed to deploy in the region under a peace plan aimed at securing an end to more than a month of fighting between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israel, but so far the troops have deployed mostly to predominantly Christian towns including Qleia and Marjayoun.
Overnight, Lebanese forces arrived in the largely Shiite Muslim village of Khiam in the same area, said Lebanese Brig. Gen. Charles Sheikhani. Sheikhani said he would not deploy troops permanently to Kfar Kila until a border fence destroyed in the war last month was repaired and all Israeli troops there withdrew.
An Associated Press reporter visited the town Thursday and early Friday, however, and saw no Israeli troops. Residents in Kfar Kila said Israeli forces had already pulled out. "Maybe today we'll patrol Kfar Kila, but if we deploy forces there, it doesn't mean we'll put soldiers in the village" to stay, Sheikhani said earlier Friday.
The army's 10th brigade has set up camps within a kilometer 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 UN Resolution that so far has halted the fighting.
Meeting the locals: The Lebanese army (Photo: AP)
The deployment marks the first time the Lebanese army has moved in force to a region that was held by Palestinian guerrillas in the 1970s and by Hizbollah since Israeli troops withdrew from the area in 2000. "We are all very happy," Sheikhani said. "It's our country. And this is the first time we've really been in
The United Nations, which is mandated to add 13,000 troops to the 2,000-strong UNIFIL force already in south Lebanon, hopes to field an advance force of 3,500 extra soldiers in two weeks, despite France's refusal to provide a large contingent.
UNIFIL force 'on the road'
"The show is on the road," UN Deputy Secretary-General Malloch Brown told reporters. Enough troops had been offered, but issues of timing and quality remained. "Are they the right battalions with the right skills and equipment?" he asked. French President Jacques Chirac said he would dispatch only 200 army engineers in addition to the 200 already part of UNIFIL, which is commanded by a French general.
The focus has now moved to Italy, Spain and Belgium, which can move forces to Lebanon quickly to meet the 15-day deadline. All three nations are studying draft rules of engagement for the force that is supposed to monitor the truce and support the Lebanese army deployment as Israeli troops withdraw.
Germany and Denmark offered maritime and border patrols and Indonesia, Malaysia and Nepal, among others, offered ground troops, the participants at the UN meeting said. The United
States will aid in planning and logistical support.
Hizbullah fighters have melted away as the Lebanese army arrives, but they have not left the south or given up the rocket launchers they used to bombard Israel during the conflict.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report