MARJAYUN, Lebanon, Aug 18 (AFP): Lebanese soldiers began taking control of the war-torn south for the first time in four decades as the United Nations worked on its goal of getting 3,500 peacekeepers on the ground there in 10 days.
Waving national flags from jeeps, tanks and armoured troop carriers, the Lebanese soldiers moved across the Litani river after dawn to replace withdrawing Israeli troops who had seized swathes of the border area during the Jewish state's devastating 34-day offensive on Lebanon.
While the Lebanese soldiers moved in, the UN worked on its troop deployment plan.
Initial plans for a French-led force stalled over concerns about its rules of engagement, but Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown said that many issues appeared to have been overcome in talks in New York.
"We've had a lot of interesting offers this afternoon, some fairly firm, some conditional on seeing the rules of engagement and the concept of operations," he said after winding up talks between dozens of member states to thrash out the force's scope and composition.
"The show's on the road, we're in business, but there's a lot of work to be done in the coming days to meet the deadline that we insisted on in this meeting, which is that we have 3,500 additional troops deployed within 10 days."
The vanguard force is charged with policing a fledgling ceasefire between Hezbollah and Israel after a month of fighting and will be followed by the full deployment of 15,000 peacekeepers as agreed under a UN-brokered ceasefire.
Much of the concern expressed by member states surrounded the force's rules of engagement when it deploys to the southern region, a traditional stronghold for Hezbollah, amid concerns of confrontation with the Shiite group.
"Very much the issue is under what circumstances our troops have to engage in hostile offensive activities," Malloch Brown said.
"This is a prudently designed rules of engagement which is not offensive in character but does call on you to robustly use force if it's necessary," he said.
France, which has strong historical links to Lebanon and has offered to command the expanded force, hesitated on whether to provide the backbone of the 15,000-man force, offering just 200 troops, far less than the UN was expecting.
Germany ruled out contributing ground troops but proposed sending a "maritime protection component" with its navy taking part in the future deployment, saying any moves hinged on the establishment of clear rules of engagement.
A UN source said Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nepal had each offered at least one battalion, and Denmark two warships.
In a sign of efforts to restore some semblance of normal life in Lebanon, two passenger planes landed in Beirut for the first time since Israeli fighter jets bombed the runways the day after the war began.