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Israel pulls troops out of Lebanon


BEIRUT, Lebanon - Israel ended its long occupation of southern Lebanon early today, pulling out the last troops, tanks and bulldozers and blowing up outposts.

The final moments came just before 3 a.m. local time, after a day of disorder and gunfire near border crossings and lines of allies and their families seeking refuge in Israel from possible reprisal.

One of the last outposts to be vacated was Beaufort Castle, a 10th-century Crusader fort on a strategic hilltop that has long been a target of guerrilla attacks.

Heavy shelling into the zone protected the last convoys of troops, producing a hasty and sometimes chaotic 24-hour pullout apparently without any serious Israeli casualties.

As they left, Israeli troops blew up some of their posts and some South Lebanese Army members left tanks and weapons behind.

Hezbollah, the Shiite guerrilla force that led the fight to bleed Israel and wear down public support for the occupation, quickly filled the power vacuum in about two-thirds of the towns and villages abandoned by Israel and its allies.

Its presence produced joy among many Lebanese and new anxiety among residents of northern Israel.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his top security advisers decided late Monday to hasten the withdrawal after the unexpectedly sudden collapse of the SLA, the local proxy militia that Israel has trained, armed and paid for two decades.

Israeli troops began leaving the occupation zone in the early hours under cover of darkness and continued withdrawing for much of the day.

There were at least two bursts of Israeli tank and artillery fire near the border, and several vehicles were fired at as they approached the line. One contained a camera crew; the driver was reported killed.

Elsewhere, a Lebanese woman was reported killed at the border. Lebanese security officials said an exchange of fire, which lasted 90 minutes, apparently broke out between Israeli soldiers and two Lebanese gunmen who tried to steal weapons or cars abandoned at the border by Lebanese refugees.

In another incident, Israeli soldiers exchanged fire with a gunman inside a building near the border who began firing toward refugees.

The withdrawal marks the end of more than two decades of bloody Israeli involvement inside Lebanon that began with a 1978 invasion to root out Palestinian forces who used southern Lebanon as a base to attack Israel.

After that invasion, Israel kept a small strip of territory in the south in an attempt to keep attackers at arm's length.

Security zone established

In 1985, three years after another invasion aimed at wiping out the Palestine Liberation Organization's power structure in Lebanon, Israel withdrew to the nine-mile wide "security zone" that it has maintained until now.

Barak has tried to assure Israelis that their northern border will be safe from attacks with a much-strengthened military presence just inside Israel. But top Israeli officials reinforced the assurance yesterday with his strongest threat to date against Syria, the main power in Lebanon.

They said that if Israel is attacked after the withdrawal, it will retaliate not just against Hezbollah and civilian Lebanese infrastructure as it has in the past, but against Syrian military positions. Syria keeps 30,000 or more troops in Lebanon.

Acquiring 'moral power'

Barak said that having ended its occupation, Israel will have increased "moral power" and internationally accepted freedom of action to retaliate against "all sources of power in Lebanon."

Outwardly unfazed by the threat, Hezbollah vowed not to stop its fight unless Israel also withdrew from a piece of land occupied by Israel in 1967 when it captured the Golan Heights from Syria.

Lebanon claims the territory, called the Shebaa Farms, which is close to the Golan Heights. But the United Nations said Israel would still be considered to have fully withdrawn even if it kept this territory.

"If the Israelis stay in Shebaa Farms and keep any Lebanese prisoner ... we at Hezbollah will deal with the withdrawal as if it did not happen, and we have to fight to liberate [our country]," Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the group's leader, told a news conference.

Hezbollah popular

Hezbollah is now reveling in peak popularity in much of Lebanon, having led what many feel is the liberation of occupied territory. Residents of Shiite villages in the south greeted returning townspeople and guerrillas with rice and flowers in an atmosphere of unbridled joy.

In one scene sure to resonate through Lebanon, more than 100 villagers stormed the al Khiam Prison in southern Lebanon, the SLA-operated jail that has become infamous for torture and other human rights abuses. About 130 prisoners were freed.

A big question mark continued to hang over the future of the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. The United Nations, with U.S. backing, plans to increase the size of the force and move it into the areas vacated by Israel.

But this depends on there being a power vacuum to fill. And yesterday it appeared that Hezbollah was moving to fill it, even if it didn't make a big show of taking control. After entering a Christian village, Hezbollah guerrillas retreated to the periphery.

Long wait at crossing

In stark contrast to the happiness among Lebanese returning to towns they had fled or been driven from years ago, fear, shock and in some cases anger rippled through those seeking to enter Israel, forced to endure long waits at the border crossing at Fatima Gate.

"It's not the end I wanted after 25 years," said an SLA man, identified only as Sayed, interviewed from the border on Israeli media. "Those who stay, they'll be slaughtered."

He said he couldn't stay and fight because "I don't have an ally."

"From what I saw today, I am ashamed," said Herzl Gedj, a former high-ranking Army officer now working to help with the SLA's entry into Israel. He spoke of seeing women and children with a single suitcase waiting under an umbrella for their fate to be decided.

But Edward Nassif, the father of a senior SLA officer, said the outcome could have been worse. His son had decided to flee to Israel after hearing Hezbollah threats to pursue key officers, such as him, and kill them one by one.

Nassif, who comes from the village of Debel but now works in Tel Aviv, waited yesterday outside the initial refugee processing center along the Sea of Galilee for his wife and sons to emerge for their new life in Israel.

"They made the end less bloody than I thought. Before I thought there would be massacres. But the end was very soft."

There have been no reports of harm befalling those who have surrendered in the past two days.

Still, the fate awaiting them is uncertain.

Lebanon has said it would not grant them an amnesty and has called them traitors.

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