U.N. troops quit Lebanese villages as tensions rise


BEIRUT, Lebanon -- U.N. peacekeeping forces withdrew from three villages in southern Lebanon yesterday and handed their positions over to the regular Lebanese army as tension grew in the area between Muslim fundamentalist guerrillas and Israeli troops.

The U.N. flag was taken down as the Ghanaian battalion of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon pulled out from Maarakeh, Janata and Yanouh. Four hundred Lebanese soldiers backed by armored personnel carriers moved into the three villages and hoisted the Lebanese flag.

It was a process that started two years ago and that is aimed at reducing the U.N. presence in the volatile Lebanese south.

The affected villages are near Israel's so-called security zone, which Israel created in southern Lebanon nearly eight years ago as a buffer against guerrilla attacks. The enclave is patrolled by about 1,000 Israeli soldiers and a 3,000-member local militia known as the South Lebanon army.

Most of the villages evacuated, and especially Maarakeh, have become centers for Hezbollah, the Party of God. The Shiite, pro-Iranian fundamentalist faction leads the Islamic Resistance Movement, whose leaders say it is dedicated to evicting the Israelis from the zone.

The military rotation yesterday coincided with the fourth straight day of clashes in southern Lebanon. The Israelis and the South Lebanon army pounded Shiite villages north of the security zone with artillery yesterday after a South Lebanon army stronghold came under rocket attacks.

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