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The BBC's Jeremy Bowen
"The military pressure isn't over yet"
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Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Naboulsi
"The Lebanese people sacrificed a lot"
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Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 21:52 GMT 22:52 UK
Chaos in south Lebanon
Lebanese queue to enter Israel
Panic has spread among Christians fearing reprisals
Israeli forces are speeding up their withdrawal from south Lebanon as Hezbollah fighters advance ever closer to the border.

News agencies in the region report that Israeli troops are blowing up their former key bases at they retreat to Israel.

Hezbollah has swept south by car and on foot in the wake of the retreat, following the now almost total collapse of Israel's allied militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).

Fierce fighting has been reported in several places close to the Israeli border and Lebanese villagers have overrun the notorious Khiam prison, freeing inmates.

The exodus began after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said his army would complete its withdrawal from south Lebanon within the next few days - several weeks ahead of schedule.


Our Correspondent Nick Childs on the Israeli border near Metullah says there have been extremes of emotion on display as the Israeli pull-out continued and accelerated in confusion.

For many Israeli soldiers, there was relief that the unhappy South Lebanon occupation was coming to an end.

But there was also fear on the faces of the refugees, many militiamen from the Israeli-sponsored South Lebanon Army and their families, also desperate to head south.

There is no escaping the sense of shock and some humiliation on this side of the border at the rapid unfolding of events.

Israel has now withdrawn from two-thirds of the zone that it occupied for more than 20 years.

SLA members have either been surrendering to Lebanese forces, joining those seeking asylum or simply returning to their own villages.

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

A further indication of the SLA collapse came when more than 100 villagers stormed Khiam jail.

They freed 130 Lebanese prisoners held without charge or trial for up to 15 years.

In northern Israel, residents have been ordered into bomb shelters following warnings from Hezbollah that it will continue its actions against Israel.

Its threat brought a warning from the Israeli Chief of Staff, Shaul Mofaz, that the military would be prepared to attack Syrian targets in Lebanon to ensure calm along its border after the withdrawal is complete.

Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon where it has some 35,000 troops, supports the Shi'a Muslim Hezbollah which has led resistance to Israel's so-called security zone.

Jubilant Lebanese

Meanwhile, there is jubilation in south Lebanon where civilians are now returning to reclaim villages and homes they left during the long conflict.

Israel's 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).

"This tragedy is over," Mr Barak told army radio on Tuesday.
Israeli armoured vehicles
Israeli troops are fast abandoning their positions

About 120 Israeli troops left one of their main bases, Bint Jbail, under cover of darkness on Monday night, completely evacuating the western sector of the buffer zone.

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 zone's eastern sector.

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

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

Little bloodshed

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

Latest reports say Hezbollah fighters have now entered the town of Naqoura, the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force, Unifil, in southern Lebanon.

Unifil troops barricaded themselves inside their compound for safety.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had earlier warned that the turmoil in Lebanon could jeopardise UN peacekeeping plans.

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

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See also:

23 May 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Role of the SLA
23 May 00 | Middle East
In pictures: Infamous prison stormed
23 May 00 | Middle East
Uneasy calm in southern Lebanon
23 May 00 | Middle East
Analysis: What next in Lebanon?
23 May 00 | Middle East
BBC driver killed in Lebanon
23 May 00 | Middle East
In pictures: Israel pulls out
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
23 May 00 | Middle East
Hezbollah chief warns Israel
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