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2000: Hezbollah makes gains in Lebanon

Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have advanced into Israel's southern occupation zone, split it in two and are within a few miles of the common border.

The news came after Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia Muslim militant group supported by Syria and Iran, took over several outposts abandoned by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA).

UN spokesman Timur Gokksel said the so-called security zone had been severed at its narrowest point, leaving large numbers of SLA fighters cut off from supply lines.

An Israeli army spokesman said that as much as one-third of the zone was now out of the control of the Israelis and the SLA, which he said had virtually evaporated from all of its positions in the central and western part of the zone.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has ordered his country's troops to be ready to pull out of southern Lebanon as early as 1 June - five weeks ahead of schedule.

Visiting the border town of Zarit, he later warned severe reprisals would follow any attacks launched at Israeli soldiers or civilians when the full troop pullout does take place.

Emotional scenes

Southern Lebanon has seen emotional scenes in recent days, as Lebanese civilians pour into villages abandoned by the SLA after more than 22 years.

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

On Monday, Hezbollah fighters and hundreds of civilians entered Houla and other nearby villages, just two kilometres (1.2 miles) north of Israel. Dozens of SLA members who had manned fortified positions at Houla and nearby Marqaba had surrendered to their opponents.

There are reports that some militiamen's families, fearing retribution after collaboration with Israel, are gathering on the Israeli border, seeking asylum.

The Hezbollah arrested a number of alleged SLA "collaborators" on arrival in Houla, who it says failed to surrender.

The SLA has been steadily pulling out of strategic hilltop villages in advance of Israel's planned complete withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

The Lebanese resistance has pushed south towards the Israeli border, filling the vacuum left by the retreat.

According to Israeli television, the air force is destroying artillery pieces abandoned by the SLA lest it fall into Hezbollah hands.

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