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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak
"We will prevail"
 real 28k

Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Naboulsi
"The Lebanese people sacrificed a lot"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 13:55 GMT 14:55 UK
Barak: Lebanon 'tragedy is over'
An Israeli soldier heads south atop a tank
An Israeli soldier heads south atop a tank
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has announced that his country's troops will fully withdraw from the zone they have occupied in southern Lebanon within days.

"This tragedy is over," he told army radio, as Israeli troops accelerated their pullout.

The security cabinet on Monday night gave Mr Barak powers to speed up the process - due to be completed by 7 July - in response to the rapid disintegration of Israel's client militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).

There were scenes of chaos in Lebanon as the SLA militiamen abandoned large areas of territory just evacuated by Israel to the Hezbollah guerrillas.

Reclaiming homes

Thousands of Hezbollah supporters rushed in behind them, by car and on foot, to reclaim villages and homes, which many had left up to 20 years ago.

22 year tragedy
1978
First Israeli invasion
1982
Israel seizes Beirut
Palestinians killed at Sabra and Shatila
1985
Security zone set up
1993
S Lebanon emptied by Israeli blitz
1996
Israel's "Operation Grapes of Wrath"
"April ceasefire"
1999
Barak pledges July 2000 pullout

A large proportion of the zone occupied by Israel is now reported to be back in Lebanese hands.

One report, quoting security sources, said three-quarters of the entire Israeli force had already withdrawn.

In another development, an Israeli army spokesman said that all the prisoners held in the Khiam jail in southern Lebanon had been released.

He said the freeing of about 150 Lebanese, held without charge or trial, followed a visit to the jail by a UN official.

There have been repeated allegations of mistreatment of prisoners in Khiam.


Elsewhere, about 120 Israeli troops left one of their main bases, Bint Jbail, under cover of darkness, completely evacuating the western sector.

Jubilant Hezbollah fighters and supporters entered the town shortly afterwards, waving flags and shouting slogans.

Scores of SLA militiamen are also reported to have been surrendering in the eastern sector of the occupation zone.

Fear of retribution

Many other members of the SLA, and hundreds of Christian villagers fearing Hezbollah retribution, headed south to seek sanctuary in Israel.

About 1,000 SLA fighters and their families are reported to have entered Israel, and been taken by bus to a special transit camp on the shores of Lake Galilee.

Israeli armoured vehicles
Israeli troops are fast abandoning their positions

An interior ministry spokesman said Israel would grant visas to up to 2,000 SLA fighters and relatives.

Other SLA militiamen have surrendered to Hezbollah or the Lebanese army, or simply melted away, in many cases returning to their villages.

Timur Goksel, a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL, said the SLA had "ceased to exist as a unified force".

Celebration

Within the past three days, Hezbollah guerrillas are reported to have taken over more than 30 villages and moved to within two miles of the Lebanese-Israeli border.

They were showered with rice and rose petals by the few remaining villagers who emerged to welcome them.

"This is a great day, and I can't express my happiness," said Qassem Ramal, a resident of one of the border villages.

Lebanese villagers entering Houla
Lebanese celebrate as they enter their village of Houla

Members of families divided by the occupation have been re-united - some meeting for the first time.

Much of the transfer of territory has taken place without bloodshed, but as many as six Lebanese civilians have been killed in SLA gunfire.

UN overtaken by events

Latest reports say Hezbollah fighters have now entered the town of Naqoura, the UN's headquarters in southern Lebanon.

UNIFIL troops barricaded themselves inside their compound for safety.

On Monday night, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that the turmoil in Lebanon could jeopardise UN peace-keeping plans.

He had hoped to boost the peace-keeping force to nearly 8,000 troops, but warned that if the conflicting sides did not exercise restraint, UN troops would be withdrawn completely.

The UN was meant to oversee the Israeli pullout - but its decision-making process proved too slow.

The BBC Jerusalem correspondent, Hilary Andersson, says that, as a result, the redeployment is taking place in the absence of any peace deal or any real international guidance.

She says this means there is no guarantee that the fight in south Lebanon is over.

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See also:

22 May 00 | Middle East
Annan warns of UN withdrawal
22 May 00 | Middle East
Arab concern over Israeli pullout
21 May 00 | Middle East
Israel and Hezbollah exchange fire
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