Israeli troops begin last phase of withdrawal


Israeli forces began leaving southern Lebanon today in the last phase of their withdrawal under a UN resolution to end a war with Hizbollah guerrillas, an Israeli security source said.

Israel had already pulled out most of the 10,000 troops who entered Lebanon during 34 days of fighting triggered by Hizbollah's abduction of two soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

Israeli defence officials said they hoped the last of the forces would be able to leave before the start of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, at dusk today.

Around 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed in the fighting - the worst since Israel's 1982 invasion. Israeli forces had withdrawn from Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation.

Israel's army did not comment on when the pullout would be completed. Israeli media said only a few hundred troops with some armoured vehicles remained yesterday.

Lebanese officials said the commander of UN peacekeepers in Lebanon, Major General Alain Pellegrini, had informed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora that Israel planned to complete its withdrawal today. Israeli officials had said they hoped to pull out all troops by last weekend, but this was delayed while discussions with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on rules of engagement continued.

Israeli television reported that despite the ground pullout, Israel said it would retain the right to overfly Lebanese territory and patrol Lebanon's coast, arguing that the UN resolutions were not being fully observed by Hizbollah.

While Israel sees the deployment of Lebanese troops and a beefed up UN force to southern Lebanon as a success, it did not achieve its goals of recovering the captured soldiers or preventing Hizbollah from firing barrages of rockets.