- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Israel's client militia was in a state of collapse across the security zone in southern Lebanon, with hundreds of fighters abandoning outposts and surrendering to Hezbollah guerrillas or fleeing into Israel.

Israel began evacuating its second-biggest base in south Lebanon early today, with convoys of trucks bringing weapons, equipment and scores of soldiers across the border from the Bint Jebeil base.

The evacuation came after Israel's security Cabinet held a late-night emergency session, and Israeli radio reported that the ministers decided to complete Israel's pullout from Lebanon "within days."

A total of 14 villages and perhaps one-quarter of the 750-square-mile zone that has been held by Israel for two decades was overrun by Hezbollah and Lebanese civilians yesterday when the Israeli-allied militia the South Lebanon Army began abandoning its posts.

Israel and the SLA shelled the advancing Hezbollah forces, leaving five civilians dead and raising fears of a reprisal rocketing of northern Israeli towns, where 100,000 residents spent the night in shelters.

Israel also shelled its abandoned positions to destroy artillery and equipment before it fell into Hezbollah's hands.

Israel set up an encampment on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to house the SLA troops and their families until arrangements can be made to settle them in Israel or in a third country, or to return them to Lebanon if peace is restored.

The SLA has "ceased to exist as a unified force" said Timur Goksel, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon.

In Washington, an Israeli official said the country will grant asylum to some 5,500 SLA militiamen and their relatives.

"We say to the SLA: 'You are welcome to come to Israel,' " said Yoram Ben-Zeev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for North America.

"Five thousand SLA officers and their families will be allowed in. We remember our friends," he told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

Israel had hoped to keep the security zone it carved out of southern Lebanon intact until it could be handed over to a U.N. peacekeeping force that would secure the border as well as villages housing SLA members.

However, the sudden collapse yesterday of an SLA battalion in the center of the line has increased the possibility that Israel will have to pull out of the zone before the U.N. force can be put in place.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday asked the Security Council to increase the U.N. peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, Unifil, from 4,500 troops to 7,930 troops.

In a report to the council, Mr. Annan requested two additional battalions equipped with armored personnel carriers, helicopters and engineering detachments that could remove land mines and other ordnance.

U.N. officials could not say yesterday when the additional troops would be approved and sent. Officials plan to police the border between Israel and Lebanon with armored vehicles and helicopters if Israel, Lebanon and Syria give permission for the flights.

Mr. Annan also said it is the Israeli government's responsibility to ensure that the SLA "ceases to exist." It must dismantle the SLA command structure, halt all logistical support and destroy SLA heavy weapons, he said.

Additionally, he has asked that all detainees in the Al-Khiam prison be turned over to the Lebanese authorities, said the report.

As rumors of an impending Israeli withdrawal hit the security zone, six villages were reclaimed by guerrillas and sympathizers Sunday and eight more yesterday.

Thousands of Lebanese converged on the reclaimed villages, in cars, trucks and on foot, many waving flags of Hezbollah and the Shi'ite group Amal. They were showered with rice and rose petals by the few remaining villagers who emerged to welcome them.

"This is a great day and I can't express my happiness," said Qassem Rammal, who lived with his wife in Adaisseh, a half mile from the Israeli border.

Israeli gunboats and helicopters attacked the region in a futile effort to stem the tide of Hezbollah advances. Israel, however, said civilian deaths were caused by SLA firing.

The Israelis and their militia allies have departed from virtually all Shi'ite areas except Bint Jbeil, home to 4,000 people.

That cuts Israel's so-called security zone in half, with the SLA retaining their headquarters in the Christian town of Marjayoun in the eastern sector but unable to travel to the western sector, except through Israel.

About 100 SLA militiamen surrendered to Lebanese army checkpoints at Beit Yahoun yesterday, Lebanese officials said. They were hauled into five Lebanese army trucks, which drove them away as crowds at the checkpoint threw stones at them.

On Sunday, 46 SLA militiamen defected from three main towns in the same area, joining hundreds of residents who returned home, many for the first time since Israel set up the zone in 1985.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, speaking on television, said those who cooperated with Israel will be held accountable. Lebanese law punishes collaboration with Israel with jail terms and even death.

Mr. Barak had hoped that Israel would be able to leave Lebanon as part of an overall agreement with Syria that would ensure peace along Israel's northern border. Such an agreement would also have guaranteed the safety of the 2,500 members of the SLA who would return to their villages.

When the talks with Syria broke down in January, Mr. Barak said the pullout will take place anyway.

The move was designed to put pressure on Syria which has balked at reaching an accord with Israel in return for the return of the Golan Heights.

A unilateral Israeli pullback will create a dangerously explosive situation in which Hezbollah might attack into Israel itself, sparking a wider Israeli-response against Syrian forces in Lebanon.

• Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem and Betsy Pisik in New York contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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