Israeli border zone cracks


JERUSALEM - Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon broke apart yesterday as its proxy militia crumbled and Hezbollah guerrillas and hordes of their supporters braved Israeli fire to move joyfully into home villages near the border.

By evening, Lebanese Shiites loyal to Hezbollah had reclaimed at least one-fourth of the 9-mile-wide zone that Israel has held since 1985.

Scores of Lebanese, fearing harsh reprisals for collaborating with the Jewish state, fled into Israel, where authorities rushed to ready a temporary trailer camp near the Sea of Galilee.

Israeli officials said Sunday that commanders would be ready for a complete withdrawal June 1, a month earlier than the July 7 target date.

The sudden, swift change in South Lebanon forced Israel to hasten its planned full withdrawal from the zone, although no date was disclosed. But at the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan cautioned that events may have overtaken preparations for an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force to fill the vacuum.

Until the United Nations acts, Hezbollah and its backers in Syria and Iran control whether there is war or peace in the area.

Six Lebanese died after Israeli helicopters and tanks fired on suspected guerrilla positions and in a vain attempt to prevent convoys of cars, some bearing Hezbollah and Lebanese flags, from carrying people into villages abandoned by the South Lebanese Army, Israel's allied militia.

Israel also fired at abandoned SLA positions to destroy weapons the militia had left behind that otherwise could have fallen into Hezbollah hands.

Fearing Hezbollah rocket attacks in retaliation for the Lebanese deaths, many Israelis fled northern Israel yesterday or sought safety in bomb shelters.

The SLA's disintegration, apparent for more than a week, picked up speed Sunday and broke apart along religious lines.

By yesterday, about 400 Shiite Muslim members of the SLA had defected into the hands of Hezbollah and Amal militias and the Lebanese army, their former enemies. Lebanon has said the SLA militiamen would be charged with treason.

The defections shattered two SLA battalions and part of a third, leaving Christian and Druse SLA contingents to protect villages in the eastern and western ends of the zone.

The SLA's top commander, Antoine Lahd, who had vowed a fight to the death like that of the ancient Jews at Masada, was in Paris early yesterday. Although he was expected to come to Israel later in the day, he did not arrive on a scheduled Air France flight.

The SLA vowed in a statement that what happened yesterday would not be repeated, and that it would maintain control of the eastern and western sectors after its collapse in the central area.

Israel has been planning for months to stage an orderly withdrawal by July from its so-called security zone that would allow an expanded U.N. force to move in to keep peace once Israeli troops left.

In recent weeks, Israel has dismantled some outposts and turned others over to the South Lebanon Army while reinforcing its northern border.

But Israel had made no move to disband the SLA and failed to anticipate how fragile the militia would become in the areas under its control. Israel was caught unprepared for yesterday's rout. By last night, it had "basically lost control of what is going on there," said Ehud Yaari, a veteran defense reporter for Israel Television.

The U.N. Security Council has yet to decide on deploying the expanded force, which would grow from 4,500 to 7,900, and the United Nations hasn't won a commitment from all the countries needed to participate. France, tapped for a leading role, hasn't decided.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak spoke by phone yesterday with French President Jacques Chirac and also with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

Later, he called an emergency meeting of his security Cabinet last night as officials waited for news of the fate of SLA members who had turned themselves over to Hezbollah.

No decisions were reported from the meeting, but Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon said he hoped that Israeli forces would pull out "much earlier" than the July 7 target date. Israeli officials say that once their troops are no longer occupying South Lebanon, they would be justified in retaliating much more harshly for cross-border attacks.

"Up till now ... we could not react as we are capable of doing, using the full power of the [army]," Ramon said. "The rules of the game are changing."

Maj. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, head of Israel's northern command, said his forces would be ready to pull out whenever Barak gave the order, but meanwhile were strong enough to protect the security zone.

Barak said that once Israel withdrew, its retaliation for attacks across its border would be "very painful." He said he holds the Lebanese and Syrian governments responsible for what will transpire.

By early yesterday, SLA troops had abandoned at least four key positions in the central portion of the security zone. Soon afterward, Hezbollah supporters began organizing a convoy of cars to head into the area. At first, they were blocked by members of the U.N. peacekeeping force, but it quickly yielded.

Then the convoy braved Israeli helicopter and tank fire to keep moving. By afternoon, television captured scenes of delight as Lebanese who had fled or been driven from the south over the past two decades reclaimed their homes and were reunited with old neighbors.

"I left 14 years ago when I was 18. Now I'm coming home," one woman told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Timor Goksel, the longtime spokesman for UNIFIL and a close observer of South Lebanon, has long believed that the SLA would not survive after Israel withdrew. But the speed of its collapse yesterday surprised him. He said he was stunned by "the courage of the Lebanese to walk in with their families under the Israeli guns."

Israeli officials said their troops were under orders to fire warning shots 100 meters in front of the convoys as a warning not to move forward.

Ashkenazi said he assumed that the convoys contained some guerrillas in civilian clothing. Explaining the fatal shooting by his soldiers, he said: "At least in some of the cases we know the dead were terrorists who moved around in positions that were abandoned. There was shooting from there. We fired back and, as a result, they were hit."

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