UN officials are moving quickly to try to keep pace with the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. The Security Council has approved a plan to verify the pullout and a UN envoy is en route to confirm cooperation of all the regional players. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 24 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon accelerates, UN officials are seeking to secure an orderly transition of power amid cautious optimism about the prospects for peace in the region.
The UN Security Council on Tuesday endorsed Secretary-General Kofi Annan's plan to verify the Israeli pullout and increase the UN peacekeeping presence in the area. The council called on all parties involved to exercise restraint and cooperate with the United Nations through the withdrawal process.
Muslim Hizbollah guerrillas and their supporters have been occupying villages abandoned by Israeli forces and their allies of the South Lebanon Army. The latest reports on Tuesday said the Israeli army had left several front-line positions. Israel reportedly pulled armor and artillery from the area of Marjayoun, the town that had served as center of Israel's security zone in southern Lebanon.
Israeli forces are now on track to withdraw well in advance of the July 7 deadline set by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The UN Security Council and Annan have been urging cooperation from all parties to ensure that Lebanon is able to reassert control over the region in a peaceful way.
Annan has been coping with a crisis in Sierra Leone that has brought new criticism of UN peacekeeping efforts. On Tuesday he stressed that the opposing sides in southern Lebanon must allow UN peacekeepers to carry out resolutions aimed at restoring Lebanese sovereignty.
"We are demanding cooperation from state and non-state actors, including the Hizbollah, and as I've said, we demand cooperation from all. What is happening on the ground is encouraging and I would expect that to continue."
Annan is sending his Mideast envoy, Norwegian diplomat Terje Larsen, back to the region to confirm cooperation. Larsen departed on Tuesday for Beirut after learning of the Security Council's support of Annan's verification plan. He said he was buoyed by Tuesday's developments.
"I think on the basis of what happened in the council today and what is happening on the ground we are in pretty good shape to fulfill our tasks."
The two most important tasks, says Larsen, are ensuring the safety of the civilian population and peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, and certifying the withdrawal of Israeli forces as soon as possible. UN officials have stressed their concern about the viability and safety of the UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon.
Since the mission, known as UNIFIL, began in 1978, 77 members have been killed and more than 300 wounded from attacks or bomb explosions. Annan said this week he did not want to the mission to become a "punching bag" between two hostile sides.
The secretary-general's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, told reporters on Tuesday that UNIFIL has no plans to take over positions abandoned by the South Lebanon Army, the SLA. He said UNIFIL has concentrated on reconnaissance missions across a 60-kilometer wide area aimed at reassuring civilian populations.
Annan's report to the Security Council this week said Israel must pull its military forces and civilian personnel out of all Lebanese territory and ensure the Israeli-backed SLA would cease to exist.
To confirm the Israeli pullout, UN forces would dispatch verification teams protected by infantry detachments in armored vehicles, supported by helicopters. The strength of the peacekeeping mission is to grow from 4,500 to nearly 8,000. But diplomats said on Tuesday that potential contributors to the mission are waiting for verification of an Israeli pullout before committing troops.
Council members stressed the need for Lebanese authorities to outline how they plan to place southern Lebanon under their administrative and military control. Mideast experts say Syria, which has some 35,000 troops in Lebanon, will have major influence there.
Henry Siegman is an expert on Israeli-Arab relations at the Council on Foreign Relations, a prominent U.S.-based think tank. He says there will be a great temptation for Syria to use Hizbollah forces to create security threats in northern Israel. His says this would be leverage for Syria to try to get Israel back to peace talks, including discussions over the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
Siegman says Israel's prime minister is taking a chance by removing his country's forces from the buffer zone at this time.
"Prime Minister Barak is taking a very large gamble in withdrawing these forces without an agreement with Syria. And politically, the only way he can deal with continued terrorism -- that is to say attacks by Hizbollah into Israel proper -- is by massive retaliation, whose consequences are difficult to predict."
It has taken 22 years for Israel to comply with Security Council resolution 425 and withdraw. But after that withdrawal is verified, the challenge lies in implementing that resolution's other main point -- respecting the political independence of Lebanon.