MARJAYUN, Lebanon, Aug 17 (AFP): In tanks, jeeps and armoured troop carriers, Lebanese soldiers began taking control of the war-battered south for the first time in decades to shore up a UN truce ending a month of deadly conflict.
Waving national flags, the troops moved across the strategic Litani river after dawn to replace withdrawing Israeli soldiers who had seized swathes of the border area during a devastating 34-day offensive on Lebanon.
A total of 15,000 government troops are due to take control of the longtime Hezbollah bastion in southern Lebanon along with a promised expanded UN peacekeeping force.
"We should deploy within 24 hours along the Blue Line," the UN-demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel, General Charles Shikhani, the head of the forces in the Marjayun area said.
Israel said its troops had handed control of half the zones it was occupying to UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon, where some of the fiercest ground combat took place.
The Lebanese operation began as countries ready to contribute to a strengthened French-led UN Interim Force in Lebanon prepared to meet Thursday at the United Nations to thrash out the tricky details of the deployment.
Washington has said that disarming Hezbollah would take time, despite warnings from Israel that failure to do so could reignite the fighting that killed 1,150 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
The historic deployment by the Lebanese army, which stayed largely on the sidelines of the 34-day conflict between Israel and the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement, was approved at a cabinet meeting Wednesday.
The move followed the implementation of a ceasefire on the ground on Monday in line with UN Resolution 1701, adopted last week after protracted wrangling among world powers over how to end the war.
Reuters adds: France is willing to lead a new U.N. force in Lebanon at least until February, so long as it is given a clear mandate and sufficient powers, Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said Wednesday.
Alliot-Marie told French television she hoped a large number of European and Muslim countries would take part in the beefed-up UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), but said the United Nations still needed to define the operation.