- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2000

NEW YORK With the chaotic withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied zone in southern Lebanon, the United Nations is being asked to step into a security vacuum that may be more dangerous than the grinding war it monitored for 23 years.

Pro-Israel militiamen in the South Lebanon Army (SLA) this week are dropping their weapons and fleeing or surrendering, rendering irrelevant a carefully laid plan to ensure their orderly withdrawal from the zone.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday advocated sending an additional 1,100 troops to southern Lebanon to verify the retreat, with the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, eventually growing to 7,900 troops.

But Shi'ite Muslim militias have raced ahead of the peacekeepers, alarming civilians who live in northern Israel and unnerving the diplomats who hope to avoid an escalation of hostilities.

"The Security Council calls upon the states and other parties concerned to exercise utmost restraint and to cooperate with UNIFIL and the United Nations," the 15 council members said in a statement yesterday morning.

"It is crucial that the states and other parties concerned do their part to calm the situation."

U.N. troops and civilian personnel yesterday rode through the newly vacated region "showing the flag to as many people as possible," said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard. He noted that troops were not redeploying closer to the border, but "just driving around" to reassure villagers.

But with the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and their allies in the SLA, a quick decision must be made by the United Nations, Lebanon and its de facto controller, Syria, on how to guard the security zone and from whom.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the cleric who heads Hezbollah, has indicated his Shi'ite Muslim militia will not readily give up its arms or submit to Lebanese authority.

"If the Israelis 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]," he said in Beirut yesterday.

Lebanese officials also sounded less than happy with Mr. Annan's plan.

President Emile Lahoud demanded a release of all Lebanese prisoners from Israeli jails and complained that the U.N. proposal did not restore all of Lebanon's territory including an Israeli-occupied area known as Shebaa Farms, which is claimed by both Lebanon and Syria.

Mr. Annan's special envoy Terje Roed Larsen left for Beirut last night to meet with Syrian and Israeli leaders. But officials here could not say whether Mr. Larsen was in direct contact with Hezbollah.

Syria, the financial and military weight behind the militia, has not said whether it will try to rein in the group.

"Hezbollah is the Lebanese resistance, nothing to do with us, the Syrian government," said Syria's U.N. representative, Mikhail Wehbe. Syria has 35,000 troops in Lebanon and exercises broad control over its political and military affairs.

In 23 years of trying to keep peace between Israel and Lebanon, UNIFIL has sustained more than 70 battle-related casualties, and its frustrated commanders often complain of being stuck in the middle "like meat in a sandwich."

New forces, likely including the French, are expected, but only after the organization has verified that Israel and the SLA have left the zone and that their land mines, tanks and heavy artillery have been destroyed or removed.

UNIFIL now comprises 4,500 troops from nine nations: Finland, France, Poland, Fiji, Ghana, Nepal, Ireland, India and Italy.

Ireland, which already has 600 troops in UNIFIL, has promised another 50 troops, subject to a Cabinet meeting in Dublin next week. Denmark has pledged to send 265 troops and 80 engineers, although it was not clear when they would arrive.

Many nations are counting on France, which already has 240 UNIFIL troops and a strategic interest in the region, to send more. However, Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine indicated last week that he would send more troops only if the mission is sufficiently armed with heavy artillery and a broader mandate to use force if necessary.

Much of southern Lebanon is breathtakingly lovely, green and fertile.

Olive and citrus trees grow on craggy hillsides while tomatoes, herbs and tobacco are cultivated in fields. Grape vines grow easily, twining around arbors, fence posts and even the entrances to bomb shelters.

The largely Shi'ite Muslim population dipped dramatically when Israeli forces invaded in 1978, but in recent years, villages have sprung up around UNIFIL encampments. The locals generally have good relations with the peacekeepers, greeting them during foot patrols and selling them produce and sundries from small shops.

UNIFIL officers note with surprise that people with money are moving into the region, attracted by the cool summers and lovely vistas. Wealthy Lebanese for the last five years have been building huge homes just outside the military bases, in a clear gamble that peace will prevail.

Deeper inside the former security zone, the quality of life is harder. Farmers have been unable to tend their land out of fear of drawing Israeli fire, and water and other resources are scarce.

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