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Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 13:39 GMT 14:39 UK
Bitter retreat for the SLA
Many SLA men have surrendered as occupation crumbles
Many SLA men have surrendered to their opponents
The sight of Saad Haddad's statue being dragged throught the streets of the Lebanese town of Marjayoun was a sure sign that the South Lebanon Army was gone.

Only days ago, the largely Christian town was the headquarters of the Israeli army in Lebanon - Saad Haddad was the first officer to defect from the Lebanese army to ally himself with Israel, a defection which led to the formation of the pro-Israel SLA.

Mighty fallen: Statue of SLA founder Saad Haddad
That ended with the hasty departure of the Israeli army and the collapse of the SLA on Tuesday - and the following morning, the Hezbollah guerrillas who had entered the town in triumph lost no time in removing the statue.

Other Hezbollah men gathered ammunition and weaponry left behind by the SLA, and drove off in two Soviet tanks and three US-made armoured vehicles which the SLA had been using only a few days ago.

The current SLA leader, Antoine Lahd, was nowhere to be seen as the guerillas ransacked his house and made off with a television set and kitchen pots.

Mr Lahd later turned up in Israel, where his family had fled earlier.

Lebanese man and boy at the border
Lebanese families fearing reprisals headed for Israel
Thousands of rank and file SLA members and their families followed their commander southwards to the Jewish state.

There their loyalty to Israel has been rewarded for now with one-year tourist visas, and accommodation in a holiday resort near the Sea of Galilee.

"They are getting visas and they have one year to decide if they want to live in Israel or Lebanon or start new life abroad. It's entirely their choice," said Israeli interior ministry spokesman Moshe Mosko.

Hundreds of other SLA fighters turned themselves over to the Lebanese authorities. They now face trial for their collaboration with the Israelis.

Analysts expect many will be pardoned - in particular the footsoldiers, many of whom have surrendered their arms as the end of the occupation loomed.

Israeli training

The SLA was born amid Israel's first invasion of Lebanon in 1978 - a force led by Lebanese Christians, whose membership has 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 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.

The 2,500-strong force has always been left to do the dirtiest work for Israel. Most notoriously, they were in nominal charge of al-Khiam prison south of Marjayoun.

On Tuesday, local villagers broke down the prison door with their bare hands as the SLA fled. Weeping and fainting with emotion, prisoners - some of them captive for more than 10 years - were reunited with their families.

Many hundreds of Lebanese prisoners had 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 Hezbollah, or because they refused to collaborate with Israel.

Buffer force

In later years, the SLA which manned the most 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 10% 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 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.

Many southern Lebanese joined the SLA only reluctantly, driven by the lack of other employment opportunties.

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.

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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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