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Israel leaves south Lebanon in formal end to incursion

Troop pullout is crucial to pact with Hezbollah

MARWAHEEN, Lebanon -- The Israeli army abandoned almost all of its positions in Lebanon early yesterday, a key step toward fulfilling a major condition of the truce that ended a month- long war against Hezbollah.

The predawn pullout put a formal end to a nearly three-month troop incursion into Lebanon that began after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a cross-border raid July 12. Thirty-four days of fighting ensued, followed by an agreement providing for international peacekeepers to police the border with the Lebanese army.

The head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon praised the withdrawal and said he expected the remaining Israeli soldiers, in a divided village that straddles the Israel-Lebanon border, would leave this week.

After the withdrawal, Israeli spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Israel was ``now waiting for Lebanon to do its part under the truce." Israel wants Lebanon to keep Hezbollah out of the south and disarm it.

But Israel will continue surveillance flights, which both Lebanon and the UN consider a violation of the border. Alexander Ivanko, a spokesman for the UN force known as Unifil, said the world body had repeatedly demanded that Israel stop the flights.

Sheik Hassan Ezzeddine, Hezbollah's senior political officer in south Lebanon, said Hezbollah would resume attacks if Israel breached the UN resolution. ``The enemy must bear the consequences of its continued air, sea, and land violations in Lebanon," Ezzeddine said.

The disputed Chebaa Farms area near the borders of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria is also still held by Israeli forces. The UN resolution that outlined the truce had directed the UN secretary general to come up with a proposal to delineate the borders in the area within a now-elapsed 30 days.

After midnight yesterday, the roar of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles could be heard from inside Lebanon as they crossed into Israel. An armored column creaked across the border into the community of Moshav Avivim, sending clouds of dust into the air.

Israeli military officials said the last soldiers returned to Israel about 2:30 a.m., ahead of the onset of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Israeli forces abandoned their hilltop position near the village of Marwaheen early yesterday. The state-run news agency said Israeli forces also vacated nine other positions along the border, but an unspecified number of soldiers remained in the Lebanese section of the divided village of Ghajar.

The Lebanese government had no immediate comment on the pullout, but has demanded an end to the surveillance flights and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Chebaa Farms.

Village farmers were glad to see the troops gone. ``May God never bring them back," said Mohammed Musseileh, 67.

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