Atul Aneja

Hizbollah agrees to Beirut proposal to deploy 15,000 troops on the border with Israel

DUBAI: Diplomatic efforts to halt the fighting in Lebanon have gathered momentum following Beirut's offer to deploy forces along the border with Israel.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Saniora told The Washington Post that his Government was ready to position 15,000 troops in southern Lebanon up to the border with Israel. He added that the Government would also accept the presence of 2,000 troops of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in the border zone. Mr. Saniora observed that this could be a temporary arrangement till a more permanent international peacekeeping force could be deployed.

Two conditions

The Hizbollah, which has been battling Israeli forces for nearly a month, is party to this offer. The Lebanese militant group, whose resistance has surprised Israel, has been making two points for enabling the cessation of hostilities. First, it has insisted that Israel must withdraw its forces from Lebanese territory; second, it is not opposed to the deployment of other forces on the border, provided these troops do not have the mandate to disarm the group.

The senior Hizbollah official, Ghalib Abu Zainab, told The Hindu that his organisation would reject a "stabilisation force" or any other force, deployed under Chapter 7 provisions of the U.N. Charter, that was meant to disarm it. However, Hizbollah would be ready to accept the presence of an expanded UNIFIL in the border areas. Responding to a question about Hizbollah's agreement to the decision, Lebanon's Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said there is an "agreement on all the steps, and we do not necessarily announce everything."

According to Mr. Aridi, the Lebanese reserve forces had been asked to report for duty between August 10 and 16.

The Arab League has supported the Lebanese position, and is slated to discuss these proposals in New York ahead of a session of the U.N. Security Council. The Security Council is not expected to vote till Wednesday on a new draft that is likely to consider the Arab proposals. Russia has ruled out support for a text, unless the Lebanese Government approves it.

Meanwhile, Israel's Prime Minster, Ehud Olmert, has described the Lebanese proposal as "interesting," but has said it should be linked to the disarmament of Hizbollah.

In the battle zone, Hizbollah fighters have since Monday killed three Israeli soldiers in separate encounters in the village of Labouna and in Dibel near Bint Jbeil. In the Dibel incident, one soldier died and five sustained injuries after Hizbollah fighters targeted an Israeli armoured vehicle with an anti-tank missile.

Threatening to expand the conflict in southern Lebanon, Israel has warned that it would strike any vehicle found moving south of the Litani river, 30 km from the border.

Eyewitnesses say traffic has dropped drastically inside the city of Tyre, which is south of the Litani.

At least 28 persons are feared killed following the bombing of the Shia areas south of Beirut late on Monday. Four buildings were targeted during the attack, and rescue workers were racing against time to pull out survivors and bodies.