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Thursday, June 3, 1999 Published at 07:08 GMT 08:08 UK

World: Middle East

Lebanese militia quit key town

Reports from southern Lebanon say the pro-Israeli militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), has completed its long-awaited withdrawal from the strategic Lebanese town of Jezzine.

The BBc's Christopher Hack: "Residents of Jezzine are in a state of shock"
As they moved out, the militiamen blew up their fortifications, as well as a large store of ammunition and artillery, sending flames and smoke high into the sky.

They also came under renewed attack from Hezbollah guerrillas, prompting retaliatory raids by Israeli planes.

Continuing losses

[ image: The Israeli-backed militia has held the strategic town for 14 years]
The Israeli-backed militia has held the strategic town for 14 years
Jezzine, which lies just outside the Israeli-occupied security zone, has been under frequent attack from Hezbollah. The SLA says it is moving back inside the occupied zone to prevent continuing losses among its forces.

On Tuesday, at least two militiamen were killed and another injured in Hezbollah attacks as the group began its retreat from the surrounding area.

SLA Commander Antoine Lahd said the situation there had become too dangerous to handle.

The area around the town has been under the control of the SLA since 1985 when Israel first established the security zone to protect its northern border communities from guerrilla attacks.

The group is funded and armed by Israel to aid its patrols of the border zone.

Rocket threat

On Wednesday Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel not to attack the Jezzine enclave after the SLA completes its withdrawal.

[ image: A convoy of around 30 military vehicles left the town on Wednesday night]
A convoy of around 30 military vehicles left the town on Wednesday night
He said any such attack would be met with Katyusha rocket attacks on settlements in northern Israel.

Israeli officials say the SLA pullback will test the willingness and ability of the Lebanese Government to prevent Hezbollah from using the area as a base for attacks on Israel.

But Israel has stressed the withdrawal is not related to plans by the new Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, to restart talks with Syria over the situation in Lebanon and Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights.

Mr Barak has pledged to withdraw all Israeli troops from south Lebanon within a year, in tandem with resuming peace negotiations with Syria, the powerbroker in Lebanon.

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