KHARDALI, South Lebanon - Lebanese troops deployed in the south yesterday, linking up with UN peacekeepers to take control of Hizbollah strongholds as Israeli forces withdraw after their 34-day war.
Hizbollah fighters melted away as Lebanese troops crossed the Litani River, about 20km from the Israeli border, said security and other sources.
A UN-backed truce halted the fighting on Monday after the 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 Hizbollah 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 vehicles towed artillery pieces, others carried troops and equipment. Some members of UNIFIL, the 2000-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."
Other units crossed the river at Qasmiyeh to deploy in the area around the port city of Tyre, the sources said.
"We all want the army and we all want stability," said Hossam Qassem, a petrol station owner in the village of Debbine, a Hizbollah stronghold battered by Israeli bombs during the war.
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 effective control of the area".
Israeli air raids killed 39 Lebanese soldiers during the war, as well as destroying all the army's coastal radars, the runways of two air bases and several army posts.
There was no sign of Hizbollah guerrillas as the Lebanese troops moved south. Even unarmed members of the group seen on previous days riding around on mopeds and giving instructions to journalists and residents in the south had disappeared.
Hizbollah has promised to co-operate with Lebanese and UN troops. But the Shi'ite Muslim group has made clear it will not disarm or leave the south. Nor has it pledged to decommission the rockets it rained on northern Israel during the conflict.
Beirut international airport, bombed by Israel early in the war, will reopen on Thursday for commercial flights for the first time in five weeks, airport sources said.
A plane belonging to Middle East Airlines, Lebanon's flag carrier, will land with civilian passengers at around 1pm (10pm NZT) from Jordan's capital Amman. It will be followed by a Royal Jordanian flight, the sources said.
The resumption of flights will effectively end an Israeli air blockade of Lebanon. Israel had allowed only planes carrying humanitarian aid to use the airport. A naval blockade is still in force, though ships with relief goods have been let through.
Two high-level UN envoys were due to arrive in Lebanon and Israel on Thursday to assess implementation of the new truce. The envoys, Vijay Nambiar and Terje Roed-Larsen, will speak to officials in both countries, the United Nations said.
The United Nations has said it hopes 3500 new UN troops can join UNIFIL within two weeks. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said on Wednesday he expected most of the 15,000 Lebanese troops to be in place by the end of the month.
The Beirut government says its army will tolerate no armed group in the south, but has not vowed to hunt for Hizbollah arms. Many Hizbollah fighters are from border villages and Lebanese officials say privately they cannot be kept from their homes.
Energy Minister Mohammed Fneish, one of two Hizbollah cabinet members, said he had agreed to the army deployment "without any reservations".
More than 200,000 refugees have already returned to the shattered south without waiting for Israeli troops to leave.
France said on Wednesday it was willing to lead the UN force so long as it had a clear mandate and sufficient strength. Other troop-contributing nations are likely to include Indonesia and Malaysia - although neither country has diplomatic ties with Israel, which may lodge objections on those grounds.
In Tehran, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed Hizbollah's "divine victory" over Israel as a victory for Islam in a letter to its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
At least 1110 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed in the conflict that erupted after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.