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Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 21:36 GMT 22:36 UK
Uneasy calm in southern Lebanon
Celebrations as Hezbollah move into previously occupied villages
By Christopher Hack in Alma Es Sheb, Southern Lebanon

In the Christian village of Alma Es Sheb, which straddles the east-west road, most residents were in the church square when we arrived at daybreak.

Whole families had gathered, standing in small groups, holding Lebanese flags, and talking quietly.

Gear abandoned at the side of the road

Many had been at the church since the middle of the night.

Elsewhere in areas abandoned by Israel's allies, the Southern Lebanon Army (SLA), convoys of cars drove through villages carrying Hezbollah supporters with huge flags.

Hezbollah restrained

Hezbollah had stationed members at either end of the village to urge supporters to use restraint when passing through.

As each car passed through, the villagers applauded politely, but clearly without enthusiasm.

The UN peacekeepers have not moved in yet

The scrubland across the western area of south Lebanon was littered with abandoned military vehicles - tanks, armoured cars, supply trucks just dumped on the side of the road.

Former Israeli and SLA bunkers were looted for a second day, with young men loading up the boots of their cars with ammunition, rolls of barbed wire, and furniture.

But they took risks because the Israeli airforce continued efforts to bomb their own bunkers.


Further east, as we approached the Christian village of Dibel, we were flagged down by two soldiers in crisp, immaculate new uniforms.

Politely they asked to search our car for weapons before allowing us into the village.

These were also Hezbollah guerrillas who had been directed to prevent "armed elements" entering the village, and threatening its inhabitants.

Timur Goksil, spokesman for United Nations peacekeepers in south Lebanon, said he was not surprised by Hezbollah's efforts to protect the Christians.

"There are rules in Lebanon which Hezbollah understands very well. This is a country which passed though civil war.

"There was never any question that they would not protect the Christians."

girl at fence
A girl and her family wait to move to safety in Israel

Inside Dibel, we were told some 500 people, members of the SLA, their families, and others fearing retribution, had fled overnight.

"Half the village left because they feared for their lives," said one man. "We have not seen any of the guerrillas. No strangers have been in the village today," he said.

As we talked, two black Range Rovers drove up, with darkened windows.

Muslim clerics

Out stepped several tall Muslim clerics, in black robes with white turbans.

They were led into the church hall, and seated under a picture of the Virgin Mary.

Tens of people from the town crowded into the hall.

Attention was called, and one began to say the words the villages were longing to hear.

"We have come from Hezbollah with a message. We are all Lebanese, we have all spilt much blood in our country - enough.

"We are with you. If you are hungry we will give you food."

At each sentence the assembled villagers burst into violent vigorous applause.

The sheikhs left, as did we, but the tension within the village had eased little.

In nearby Shia Muslim villages, the mood was very different. Children were given the day off school and stood throwing rice and rose petals over every car arriving.

Uneasy calm

This latest phase of the withdrawal has been carried out almost without a shot being fired.

But a driver working for the BBC was killed in an attack by an Israeli helicopter gunship.

The mood in the villages of south Lebanon last night was largely of disbelief and elation.

But despite the efforts of Hezbollah to police the situation, almost every young man is carrying a weapon, and there is no force of authority.

The UN peacekeepers are unable to expand their control until receiving instructions from New York.

People here are desperately hoping this calm will be maintained, but events in south Lebanon are as ever unpredictable.

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See also:

23 May 00 | Middle East
Chaos in south 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
23 May 00 | Middle East
Uneasy calm in Christian village
21 May 00 | Middle East
Israel and Hezbollah exchange fire
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