Immediate pull-out of SLA militia in Jezzine is expected


Lebanon awaits the imminent withdrawal of the South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia from the Jezzine enclave north of Israel's occupation zone.

"The feeling is that the SLA will pull out within the next 24 hours," Mr Ibrahim Mussawi, the Hizbullah spokesman, told The Irish Times. "Probably tomorrow night".

The SLA withdrawal from Jezzine is seen as a first, trial step in the total evacuation of the 9 km- to 15 km-wide strip of Lebanese territory along the border which was designated as a "security zone" when Israel pulled the bulk of its forces back across the border in 1985 following its disastrous invasion of the country three years earlier.

Over the past several days the militia has dismantled its headquarters and television station in the picturesque mountain town of Jezzine and abandoned fortified positions in the enclave, 12 km north of Israel's occupation zone. The families of militia officers, who are mostly Maronite Christians, have moved south into the occupation zone.

The Lebanese Prime Minister, Mr Selim al-Hoss, urged the residents of Jezzine to remain calm and not fear a vacuum. "The government is aware of its responsibilities," he said. Sources say that Beirut will deploy units of the internal security forces rather than the army.

Neither Lebanon nor its ally, Syria, want to give the impression that Israel's demand for "security guarantees" is being met. Both insist that Israel's withdrawal must be "unconditional" and unilateral.

Hizbullah and other resistance groups have also tried to reassure the inhabitants of the enclave who fear reprisals for collaborating with the SLA and the Israeli army.

Speaking on behalf of Hizbullah, Mr Mussawi stated: "We will not enter the area once it falls under the control of the Lebanese authorities. We are working hand-in-hand with the authorities to liberate our country. This has always been the case . . . We renew our invitation to the collaborators to defect. If they defect they can be pardoned."

Leading figures in the SLA, who are under indictment for treason, will be dealt with "by the Lebanese government and the judicial system," he said.

On Friday, the Lebanese parliament was pressed by a deputy from Jezzine, Mr Nadim Salem, to promptly enact a bill granting amnesty to those living in the occupation zone who were compelled to co-operate with the occupation forces.

Mr Salem argued that the bill should benefit all those forced to collaborate, "not only those in Jezzine".

This could create a precedent for Lebanese residing in the zone occupied by the Israeli army who have either joined the ranks of the SLA or served in civilian capacities.

The SLA, some 1,500 men strong, was formed by Israel in 1985 to bolster some 1,000 regular Israeli army troops based in the occupation zone.

While the officers were mostly Christian, the soldiers were recruited mainly from poor Shia Muslim villages in the south. Although the SLA was raised, financed, trained and armed entirely by Israel, it made its base in Jezzine to promote the fiction that it was a Lebanese force.

Over the past year, Hizbullah focused its attacks on Jezzine with the aim of forcing the SLA to retreat into the occupation zone. In the past few weeks, Hizbullah fighters seriously wounded the local SLA commander and killed his deputy, delivering the coup de grace to the deeply demoralised force which was being rapidly depleted by defections to both the Lebanese army and Hizbullah.

According to Mr Timor Goksel, the UNIFIL spokesman, the SLA withdrawal was "inevitable" because the militia could "no longer hold" the enclave.

Mr Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary general, said yesterday that the SLA withdrawal from Jezzine heralded the total collapse of the militia, the last militia of Lebanon's civil war era.

It is ironic that the SLA's departure from Jezzine has been ordered by the outgoing Likud government which had refused to implement the well-laid contingency plans of the Israeli army command. Most Lebanese believe Mr Barak will honour his pledge to end the occupation "within a year".

Reuters adds: Israeli warplanes made at least eight raids on south Lebanon yesterday, killing a Hizbullah fighter, sources in Lebanon and Israeli said.