leaving lebanon 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The leader of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon hailed as "significant progress" the pullout of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon on Sunday, but said the pullout would not be complete until Israeli soldiers left one remaining divided border village.
"Significant progress has been achieved today," Maj. Gen. Alain Pellegrini, commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, said in a statement.
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He said the Israeli army had withdrawn its troops from the south except for the area of Ghajar. "I expect that they will leave this area in the course of the week, thus completing the withdrawal in line with the (UN) resolution 1701," he said.
Ghajar is a divided border village where an unspecified number of IDF soldiers remained in the Lebanese section, according to Israeli reports.
"UNIFIL is also in close contact with the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) to facilitate a speedy withdrawal from the area of Ghajar," a UNIFIL statement said.
The statement said peacekeepers are "in the process of confirming" that there are no IDF troops present in the areas that Israel declared as vacated. It said Lebanese army troops will begin taking over the area Monday morning.
It added that after a full Israeli withdrawal, UNIFIL in cooperation with Lebanese army would inspect the entire length of the border to ensure that there are no violations of the so-called blue line.
Two and a half months after entering Lebanon the IDF withdrew the last of its troops early Sunday, fulfilling a key condition of the UN cease-fire that ended a month long war with Hizbullah guerrillas.
IDF officials said the last soldier exited Lebanon just after 2:30 a.m.
In the last few days, the IDF has reduced the number of soldiers stationed over the border. By Saturday night, barely 200 remained.
Under the cover of darkness, the roar of IDF tanks and armored vehicles could be heard moving across the Lebanese side of the border during the operation.
An armored column creaked across the border at the Israeli border community of Moshav Avivim, leaving tread marks in the soil and sending a large cloud of dust into the air that was illuminated by the vehicle's headlights. Later, the last soldiers were seen boarding a bus at nearby Moshav Zarit.
On Saturday, the IDF received the green light from Defense Minister Amir Peretz to withdraw the remaining troops before Yom Kippur, which begins Sunday evening.
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz presented the army's withdrawal plan to Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the weekend.
Peretz also ordered an "aggressive IDF posture" along the border and instructed Halutz not to allow Hizbullah to hold demonstrations along the frontier. Last week, Halutz said he would allow soldiers to open fire at rock-throwing Hizbullah supporters along the Blue Line, the UN-demarcated border with Lebanon.
According to agreements between the IDF and UNIFIL, representatives of the multinational force will be stationed at Northern Command headquarters in Safed to coordinate military activity inside Lebanon in real time.
Officers in the Northern Command said over the weekend that even though Israel had decided to withdraw, there were several issues that needed to be resolved with the Lebanese army and UNIFIL.
They said UNIFIL still needed to respond to questions on its rules of engagement and what it would do if it identified Hizbullah gunmen on their way to or in the midst of an attack against Israel.
Nearly 6,000 UNIFIL soldiers and 15,000 Lebanese troops are deployed in southern Lebanon.
A high-ranking IDF officer said that if Hizbullah violated the cease-fire, Israel would hold the Lebanese government responsible as well as the Islamist group. "The situation now is different, since there is an army in southern Lebanon and our discussions are with the government," he said.
AP contributed to this report