BEIRUT, Aug 16 (AP): France and Turkey sent their top diplomats to Beirut Wednesday to discuss the deployment of a 15,000-strong international force to southern Lebanon, part of which the UN hopes can be in place in the next two weeks.
The diplomatic maneuvers came as the Israeli army withdrew more of its troops from southern Lebanon while Lebanese troops prepared to move across the Litani River on Thursday to take control of the war-ravaged region from Hezbollah guerrillas.
In a sign of lingering danger in south Lebanon, security officials said an explosive detonated Wednesday in the town of Nabatiyeh, killing a 20-year-old man. The victim, Ali Turkieh, stepped on the bomb outside his family home. A girl in the area was injured by explosives a day earlier.
The international force, which will be bolstered by 15,000 troops from Lebanon, will police the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah fighters that ended 34 days of fighting on Monday.
The UN hopes 3,500 international troops can reinforce a 2,000-strong UN contingent already on the ground within 10 to 15 days to help consolidate the cease-fire and create conditions for Israeli forces to head home, Assistant UN Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hedi Annabi said.
Journalists Tuesday witnessed about 500 Israeli soldiers on foot crossing over the border back into Israel near the Israeli town of Malkiya. Some smiled broadly, while others wept.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, arrived in Beirut for talks early Wednesday. A delegation of the 56-country Organization of the Islamic Conference also traveled to Beirut by land from Syria. It was led by Malaysia's foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar, and Pakistan's top diplomat, Khursheed Kasuri.
France was expected to lead the international force. The Italian foreign minister has already visited Beirut and pledged as many as 3,000 troops. Indonesia and a dozen other countries have expressed a willingness to help.
However, it remained unclear how quickly a full force could be deployed. The process involves three armies on the ground and is complicated, given that the Lebanese and Israeli armies do not have direct contact and a third and central player - Hezbollah guerrillas - will not be involved.
In the meantime, the 2,000-strong UN peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL that has been in southern Lebanon for more than two decades was to temporarily take up positions along the border.
The zone along the frontier would then be handed to Lebanese troops and the greatly reinforced UNIFIL force once all Israeli soldiers have withdrawn, UN officials said on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the operations.
"It will be a gradual withdrawal. ... It will take couple of days, even up to one week," a UNIFIL officer told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. "We agreed with the Lebanese army that it will start deploying as the Israelis start withdrawing. It could be as early as Thursday, maybe a slight delay."
Those plans, however, depend on the Lebanese government giving the order for the army to move south of the Litani. The Cabinet has been unable to meet on the issue since the cease-fire because of divisions over what should be done about Hezbollah's arms in the south.