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Details of cease-fire still hazy in Lebanon as Israelis depart

ON THE ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER -- Hundreds of Israeli soldiers walked out of Lebanon yesterday -- some smiling broadly and pumping their fists, others weeping or carrying wounded comrades -- as a cease-fire with Hezbollah solidified after a shaky start. The process was expected to accelerate over the coming days.

The international community looked to build a UN peacekeeping force for south Lebanon, but it remained unclear how quickly such a force could be deployed. The guerrillas' patrons, Syria and Iran, proclaimed that Hezbollah won its fight with Israel -- statements the Bush administration dismissed as shameful blustering.

Many of the infantry soldiers smiled with joy as they crossed back into Israel. Members of one unit carried a billowing Israeli flag. Some sang a traditional Hebrew song with the lyric: ``We brought peace to you." Others wept as they returned to their country, exhausted by the fighting. Several tanks headed back into Israel as well, including one that had been damaged and was being towed by a military bulldozer.

Some of the troops had been so disconnected from sources of news that they asked if Israel had managed to free two soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah on July 12 sparked the fighting. Israel had not.

In Beirut, meanwhile, Hezbollah continued yesterday to refuse to disarm or withdraw its fighters from the battle-scarred hills along the border with Israel. That threatened to delay deployment of the Lebanese Army and endanger the cease-fire, the Washington Post reported.

The makings of a compromise, however, emerged from all-day meetings in Beirut, the Post said, citing senior officials involved in the negotiations, and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora scheduled a Cabinet session today for what he hoped would be formal approval of the deal. Hezbollah indicated it would be willing to pull back its fighters and weapons in exchange for a promise from the Lebanese Army not to probe too carefully for underground bunkers and weapons caches, the officials said.

Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, had insisted that any disarmament of his militia -- even in the border area -- should be handled in longer-term discussions within the Lebanese government, according to government ministers. But the Lebanese Army, backed by key political leaders, refused to send troops into the just-becalmed battle zone until Hezbollah's missiles, rockets, and other weapons were taken north of the Litani River, the ministers said.

At times yesterday as the Israeli soldiers headed south, they crossed paths with Israeli civilians traveling in the opposite direction, back to the homes they abandoned weeks ago under Hezbollah rocket fire.

Areas of northern Israel that were turned into closed military zones weeks ago were reopened to civilian traffic, and the tanks, bulldozers, and other heavy military vehicles that had lined the roads were gone. At one main junction, teenage girls handed out flowers to returning soldiers, thanking them for protecting their homes.

The partial Israeli withdrawal came in preparation for the Lebanese troop deployment across the Litani River, some 18 miles north of the Israeli border.

The United Nations has authorized the deployment of 3,500 well-equipped troops to Lebanon within two weeks as the vanguard of a robust UN peacekeeping force to make way for the Lebanese Army and allow the withdrawal of Israeli troops, a senior UN peacekeeping official said yesterday.

But Hedi Annabi, the UN's assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, stressed that the Lebanese deployment and Israeli withdrawal can start even sooner using the current 2,000-member UN force ``if the political will is there."

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, and France were due in the Lebanese capital today, and it was widely believed they would work out details of assembling a 15,000-member international force. Indonesia and a dozen other countries also have expressed a willingness to help.

That force would work with an equal number of Lebanese soldiers. Together, they are expected to police the cease-fire that took hold Monday.

France, which was expected to lead the force, was demanding a clearer UN mandate, including details on when the troops can use firepower.

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