Lebanese troops deployed in south Lebanon yesterday, linking up with UN peacekeepers to take control of Hezbollah strongholds as Israeli forces withdraw after their 34-day war with the guerrillas.
Hezbollah fighters melted away as Lebanese troops crossed the Litani River, which is about 20km from the Israeli border, security sources and witnesses said.
A UN-backed truce halted the fighting on Monday after the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling for the Lebanese army and an expanded UN force of up to 15,000 troops to deploy in the south and replace Hezbollah and Israeli forces.
More than 100 trucks, troop carriers and jeeps streamed across a makeshift bridge on the Litani to the mainly Christian town of Marjayoun, about 8km from the Israeli border.
Some members of UNIFIL, the 2,000-strong UN peacekeeping force already in Lebanon, watched them cross.
Dozens of people lined roads, waving red and white Lebanese flags and throwing rice and flowers in celebration.
"May God protect you," 64-year-old Khadeeja Sheet yelled at the passing soldiers. "We support nobody except for our army."
The Israeli army said it had begun "transferring responsibility" in the south in a staged process that was "conditional on the reinforcement of UNIFIL and the ability of the Lebanese army to take ... control of the area."
Two children were killed by a cluster bomb explosion in the town of Naqoura yesterday, UN officials said.
Beirut's badly bombed airport took a tentative step toward returning to normality yesterday when two passenger flights landed, the first to do so since war broke out, officials said.
An Airbus A321 belonging to Lebanese national carrier Middle East Airlines and traveling from Amman landed at Rafiq Hariri International Airport at 1pm with 149 passengers. Half an hour later, a Royal Jordanian plane from Amman also landed at the airport, which was put out of action by Israeli air strikes the day after the war broke out.
In Jerusalem, Israel's defense minister, his credentials already in question before the war in Lebanon, said the military downplayed the extent of Hezbollah's missile threat when he took office, a report said yesterday.
As public criticism of the war's handling mounted, the Haaretz daily quoted Defense Minister Amir Peretz as saying top military officers did not relay all relevant information about Hezbollah's arsenal after he took office in May.
also see stories:
Hezbollah leads way in rebuilding Lebanon
The hidden costs of the war in Lebanon