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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 August 2006, 05:10 GMT 06:10 UK
Lebanon army starts to move south
Israeli troops return from Lebanon with a captured Hezbollah flag
Israeli troops still hold much of southern Lebanon
Lebanon's army has begun moving troops to take up positions south of the country's strategic Litani river.

France has confirmed it is ready to command an expanded international force working along with the Lebanese army, but only under certain conditions.

Israel has already passed control of some of its positions in the south to the current United Nations force there.

It indicated that a full withdrawal from what was a stronghold of Hezbollah could take weeks or even months.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said the town of Marjayoun and its surrounding area were now in the hands of troops from Unifil, the 2,000-strong existing UN force.

Today, it's not 'How many troops and when?', it's 'To do what and how?'
Michele Alliot-Marie
French defence minister

Areas close to the border town of Bint Jbeil have also been handed over though the town itself remains under Israeli control, she added.

Bint Jbeil saw heavy fighting with Hezbollah during Israel's month-long war with the militants, sparked by the abduction of two soldiers on the border.

The spokeswoman said the handover would continue gradually over the coming days but it was too early to say how soon Israeli troops would be able to pull out of Lebanon entirely.

Earlier, the chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces said the withdrawal would take seven to ten days although he also indicated that this would depend on the speed of the expanded UN force's deployment.

Ambiguous guidance

Lebanese army trucks and jeeps were seen moving south towards the Litani river early on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the Lebanese cabinet approved a plan to deploy 15,000 troops to the south, after several days of delay under mounting international pressure.

UN PEACEKEEPING FORCE
Leader: France
Likely contributors: Italy, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia
Other possible contributors: Morocco, Spain, Belgium, Finland, Brunei, Germany, Portugal, Pakistan
Current Unifil force: 2,000 troops from China, France, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Poland and Ukraine

It is a historic step for the Lebanese army and a key element of the UN ceasefire process, the BBC's Nick Childs reports from Beirut.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the army deployment was to defend the country and that no weapons would be allowed outside the authority of the Lebanese state.

But precisely what that means for the Hezbollah presence in south Lebanon and its weaponry - whether they merely have to stay out of sight - remains ambiguous, our correspondent says.

French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has confirmed that France is ready to lead an expanded UN force in Lebanon but only with a clear mandate and sufficient resources.

It seems that these have yet to be finalised, our correspondent says.

Mandate questions

Unifil is already under French command and Ms Alliot-Marie confirmed that France would continue to lead it once it grew in strength.

Map

But she refused to be drawn on the number of French troops that would be sent.

"Today, it's not 'How many troops and when?', it's 'To do what and how?'" she said on French TV.

She added that only once a clear mandate had been established would it be clear which other countries would join the larger force.

The UN has been counting on France to provide the backbone of the expanded force and hoping that at least 3,000 troops could be on the ground within two weeks, the BBC's Alasdair Sandford reports from Paris.

During a visit to Beirut, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, said that President Jacques Chirac would decide such matters in his own time.

Hard road home

Israeli aircraft have been dropping leaflets warning refugees to stay away from southern Lebanon.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Make Shalom, not Jihad
Doron Archi, Boston, United States

Despite these warnings, there has been a steady stream of displaced people heading home towards their villages.

The UN says around a quarter of a million have already returned but hundreds of thousands are still believed to be on the move.

They face a tough journey with traffic jams and the threat of unexploded bombs, the BBC's Greg Morsbach reports.

A spokeswoman for the charity Oxfam said some 600 roads and bridges had been destroyed.

Bulldozers are now being used to clear away debris from the highways.

The UN found 200 cluster bombs near a hospital, in the village of Tebnin.

Many of those who managed to escape days of heavy bombardment are now faced with rebuilding their villages and Hezbollah is offering assistance, our correspondent notes.


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