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Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 21:29 GMT 22:29 UK
Analysis: Role of the SLA
Many SLA men have surrendered as occupation crumbles
Many SLA men have surrendered to their opponents
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

The rout of the South Lebanon Army (SLA) is an ignominious end to one of the sorriest chapters of recent Lebanese history.

The SLA was born amid Israel's first invasion of Lebanon in 1978 - a force of mercenary collaborators led by Lebanese Christians, whose rank and file have been recruited from Druze and Shi'a Muslim villages in Israel's occupation zone.

sla forces
Before the collapse, the militia manned the hotspots
The force was never fully trusted or embraced by the Israeli army which trained, armed and financed it.

However, its members were paid salaries of $500 - a handsome sum in an economically depressed area, and many of their families found labouring jobs in Israel.

Dirty work

The demoralised SLA force of 2,500 fighters has always been left to do the dirtiest work for Israel in what has always been a dirty conflict.

Most notoriously, they were in nominal charge of al-Khiam "prison" south of Marjayoun, the Israeli military headquarters in Lebanon.

Many hundreds of Lebanese prisoners have been held there over the years without trial and without charge, under inhuman conditions with routine torture.

Jubilation as al-Khiam prisoners are freed
Jubilation as al-Khiam inmates are freed
Former detainees said that although there was no actual Israeli presence in al-Khiam, SLA interrogators received questions for captives by e-mail from their Israeli masters over the border.

Often the detainees were held merely as hostages, because they had relatives in the Shi'a guerrilla force Hezbollah, or because they refused to collaborate with Israel.

Reluctant collaborators

In later years, it was the SLA which manned the most exposed and dangerous outposts of the Israeli occupation - their casualties in guerrilla attacks outstripped the Israelis' by more than two to one.

The SLA "sandbag" meant Israel was able to occupy about one-tenth of Lebanese territory with only 1,000 troops stationed in the country.

Many just abandoned their weapons and equipment
SLA equipment lies abandoned in the old "security zone"
The SLA's actions have included the far-from sporadic shelling of Lebanese civilian centres and even aggressions against United Nations peacekeepers, who have been in Lebanon since 1978 "to oversee Israel's withdrawal" under a UN resolution of that year.

It has to be said, many southern Lebanese joined the SLA only reluctantly.

The instability of the occupation has meant there have been few opportunities for work other than through collaboration with the Israelis.

Facing justice

Now many will pay the price for that collaboration - in treason trials in Lebanese military courts or possibly in on-the-spot reprisals by Lebanese retaking the occupied zone.

Many SLA men and their families seek asylum in Israel
Many SLA men and their families seek asylum in Israel
Analysts expect many pardons to be issued, in particular among the footsoldiers, many of whom have thrown down their arms with alacrity as the end of the occupation loomed.

It is significant however, that the Christian-dominated areas in the eastern sector of the occupied zone have been much slower to surrender.

If these elements put up a fight, they risk sparking a bloodbath in which the SLA would undoubtedly come off worse without the help of its Israeli backers.

Cynics say the Christian elite who have led the SLA are the most likely to escape Lebanese justice, probably being giving asylum in Israel or passed on to third countries.

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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
07 May 00 | Middle East
Lebanese seek UN protection
23 May 00 | Middle East
Analysis: What next in Lebanon?
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