- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel — Life slowly returned to the battered Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona yesterday, as residents emerged from grimy bomb shelters and began cleaning up the wreckage caused by more than a month of Hezbollah rocket attacks.

The streets in this border town, empty for weeks, filled up with cars. Long-closed stores opened their doors. Buses shuttled through the newly reopened central bus station, many heading south with soldiers allowed home for the first time in weeks.

Kiryat Shemona was the hardest hit of Israel’s cities, with more than 1,000 rockets slamming into its streets and surrounding hills. Half its population of 22,000 fled during the attacks.

Though the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas took effect Monday morning, many people here, fearing a last spasm of violence, did not begin venturing out until a day later.

“There is still tension in the air, but I am glad to see our soldiers back here again,” said Edna Peretz, 45, who opened her kiosk at the bus station for the first time since July 13.

Merchants swept shattered glass from storefronts; the center of town was relatively busy as people visited banks, restaurants and stores.

With the fighting over, at least for now, Israel began thinning out its troops in southern Lebanon. The army plans to withdraw a large contingent of its troops from Lebanon today and hand over the territory to the Lebanese army under the auspices of the commander of a U.N. force there, senior Israeli military officials said.

Under the U.N. cease-fire deal, Israeli troops will be replaced by 15,000 Lebanese soldiers supported by up to 15,000 troops under the blue flag of the United Nations.

Israel hopes to complete the evacuation of its forces by next week, ending the military operation that began July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers, the army said.

Israel had no intentions of waiting for the arrival of the beefed-up international force, which it did not expect to begin moving into southern Lebanon until next week in a deployment that would take a month to complete, the military officials said.

By the end of the week, the Israelis planned to release many of the thousands of reserve troops called up for the conflict, signaling an end to the largest mobilization in many years.

“We are making every effort to thin the ranks of reservists, and to return as many civilians as possible to their homes,” the deputy chief of the northern command, Brig. Gen. Shuki Shihrur, told Army Radio.

The army said the U.N.-drafted cease-fire was generally holding, and survived its first 24 hours with only a few infractions.

Five mortar shells were fired overnight, but landed in vacant land in southern Lebanon, the army said. No rockets have been fired at northern Israel since Sunday. Israeli troops shot five armed men who approached them in two separate incidents in southern Lebanon yesterday, the army said. It said it did not know whether the men were killed. On Monday, Israel said its troops killed at least six Hezbollah guerrillas.

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