U.N. peacekeepers deploy on Israeli border in south Lebanon

MARJAYOUN, Lebanon - U.N. peacekeepers fanned out Saturday along the Lebanese-Israeli border, completing their deployment for a mission to bring stability to a zone occupied by Israel until May and controlled since by guerrillas.

White armored vehicles flying the blue U.N. flag cruised without incident along the border fence that has been the most violent front of the Arab-Israeli conflict for more than 20 years.

The deployment clears the way for Lebanon to station its own troops in the former Israeli-occupied zone, where anti-Israeli guerrillas have been the de facto authority since the Israelis left on May 24.

Lebanese Interior Minister Michel Murr said Saturday that a force of 1,000 soldiers and police officers were poised to enter the zone early Monday.

Murr said the force would maintain law and order in the former occupied zone, but not security along the border. That, he said, was the duty of the U.N. peacekeepers.

Lebanon has repeatedly refused to send troops to its southern border, saying it does not want to serve as guards for Israel. However, Murr said, the Lebanese force would not tolerate armed guerrillas in the former occupied zone.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak welcomed the U.N. deployment, issuing a statement that he hoped it would ''bring stability and security to the area'' and allow Israelis living near the border to lead normal lives.

The operation, which began at 6 a.m. and lasted most of the day, went smoothly. Some 370 U.N. troops took up positions along border, sometimes taking over posts vacated by Hezbollah guerrillas.

A high-ranking Indian officer at the U.N. headquarters in the south Lebanon town of Naqoura said ''all necessary measures were taken with Lebanese officials, who coordinated with all parties on the ground, including Hezbollah.'' He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Iran, Hezbollah's backer, welcomed the U.N. deployment. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said he hoped it would prevent any further Israeli incursions into Lebanon, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Finnish soldiers of the 5,000-member U.N. force set up a position on the Lebanese side of the border across from the Israeli town of Metulla.

Platoons of peacekeepers from Fiji, Ghana, India, Ireland and Nepal deployed in and around the border villages of Taibeh, Rmeish, Alma Shaab, Aitaroun, Meiss el-Jabal, Addaisseh, Meri and at Sheik Abbad hill, according to witnesses and U.N. officers who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In a reassuring move for residents at former strongholds of the Israeli-backed militia, Indian soldiers set up a station between the Christian towns of Marjayoun and Qlaiaa. Capt. Kumara Dhas said his men were readying another position in the area.

''This is good. Now, we can move freely,'' said Munif Lahham, a Marjayoun resident in his early 60s who lives on main street.

Marjayoun served as headquarters of the South Lebanon Army, a 2,500-member militia that helped Israeli troops patrol their occupied zone until it collapsed with the Israeli withdrawal. Most militiamen surrendered to Lebanese authorities and are being tried in military court for collaboration. Other officers were among the 7,000 Lebanese, many of them Christian residents of Qlaiaa and Marjayoun, who fled to Israel for fear of retribution by Muslim guerrillas.

In announcing the deployment Friday, the United Nations said the main aim would be to ''instill confidence among the local inhabitants.''

Overall, the guerrillas have acted with restraint since Israel's withdrawal, and there have been very few incidents of revenge. But there have been cases of intimidation of Lebanese accused of collaboration. There also have been tensions at the border fence, with Israel warning Lebanon it must stop civilians from throwing stones at Israeli soldiers posted on the other side.

U.N. troops had taken up position at six points along the border in the past two weeks, but Lebanon had refused to allow them to deploy fully until its cartographers were satisfied that Israel was no longer violating the international border.

Around 550 U.N. troops total are now in the zone. The remainder of the force is stationed to the north and is due to send in more troops to reinforce the new positions.

While the presence of the U.N. peacekeepers is welcome, some southern Lebanese say they do look forward to the deployment of the Lebanese security forces.

''We want the Lebanese army. We are suffocating. We need the army to lift our spirits,'' said Mohammed Meri, a 35-year-old Marjayoun resident.

Saturday's deployment fulfills the mandate of UNIFIL for the first time since it was created by the U.N. Security Council after a 1978 Israeli invasion. Israel invaded again in 1982 and set up the occupied zone in 1985.

The deployment also brings a strong international presence to a border that has seen fighting since the late 1960s when Palestinian guerrillas made south Lebanon into a base for attacks on Israel.


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