Heavy fighting in southern Lebanon stopped abruptly yesterday after a UN-brokered ceasefire came into effect, but the shooting of two Hezbollah guerrillas by Israeli troops underlined the fragility of the calm.
Security sources in south Lebanon said Israeli air strikes and artillery fire continued until just a few minutes before the truce took effect at 8am.
Then there was silence.
The Israeli army said soldiers shot dead a Hezbollah fighter in southern Lebanon after he opened fire on them, marking the first casualty since the truce started.
It said soldiers elsewhere shot another Hezbollah guerrilla who had approached them and aimed a gun at them. It was not known if he was killed.
Thousands of people displaced by five weeks of fighting in Lebanon headed south towards their homes, choking bomb-damaged roads with their cars in spite of a warning from Israel not to return to the area. Drivers honked their horns in celebration.
"I'm so excited to see my home," said Sanaa Ayyad, carrying a baby while two young boys followed her. "I'd heard news it was completely destroyed, but even if there's one room intact, I will stay there with my children."
In northern Israel, soldiers coming out of Lebanon were greeted with hugs and handshakes by their comrades. Streets became busier as residents emerged from homes and bomb shelters.
Around 1,100 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 156 Israelis, including 116 soldiers, have been killed in the war that began after Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.
Israel says around 530 Hezbollah guerrillas were killed in the war. Hezbollah has acknowledged only about 80 dead.
Thousands of Israeli troops remain in southern Lebanon, and they are not expected to withdraw fully until an expanded UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) arrives alongside Lebanese troops.
"We are entering the stage of a ceasefire. The firing is over," a senior Israeli army officer said over the radio, giving orders to his soldiers.
"We hope the ceasefire will be kept. We are asking you to stay alert and prepare as Hezbollah could still break it," he said.
A senior Lebanese political source said efforts were under way to arrange the deployment of the Lebanese army in the south. He said the deployment could not happen before Sunday.
Israel's government says it inflicted a heavy blow on Hezbollah in the war.
"We did not fail in this war," Interior Minister Roni Bar-On said. "The capabilities of [Hezbollah's] long-range rockets have been minimized almost to zero."
Hezbollah has also claimed victory. A flyer distributed in Beirut proclaimed "the divine victory" and showed a Hezbollah flag flying above a rocket launcher and two guerrillas.
Israel said a ban on unauthorized traffic south of the Litani river remained in place, and that any vehicles on the roads risked attack. An air and sea blockade of Lebanon would also continue, a military source said.
"We call on Lebanese residents not to return for now to areas south of the Litani until the deployment of the Lebanese army and UNIFIL," army spokesman Captain Jacob Dallal said. "This is to ensure the safety of the civilians."
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz vowed that the Army would not allow the Hezbollah militia to return to south Lebanon.
"We will operate with the utmost determination against a regrouping of Hezbollah in south Lebanon," Peretz told members of his Labor party before a parliament meeting.