UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has confirmed the pullout of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon is in compliance with a 1978 Security Council resolution. Annan is en route to the Middle East to help stabilize the situation amid comments from Lebanese officials that the Israeli withdrawal is not complete. UN Correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 19 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations says it has verified the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, in fulfillment of a 22-year-old UN mandate.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan told a press conference on Friday that the United Nations Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, has confirmed the pullout. He said UN peacekeepers are now preparing to expand their role in the area formerly occupied by Israeli forces and their allies.
"Lebanon is now closer to peace than it has been in decades. The main task of UNIFIL will be to help the Lebanese government and armed forces assume their responsibilities along the border and throughout the area from which Israel has withdrawn."
The secretary-general hailed the cooperation of the leaders of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, including its late President, Hafez Assad. He also extended thanks to the governments of Iran, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia for their support of UN efforts in Lebanon.
Iran has been a supporter of the Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon and it was a potential stabilizing influence on Hizbollah after the Israeli withdrawal was complete. The guerrillas have now assumed de facto control of the much of the zone previously occupied by the Israelis.
Annan's Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, said Annan spoke directly with Iranian officials through the course of the Israeli pullout and that Annan was "fully satisfied" with his conversations with Tehran. He gave no further details.
After speaking to reporters Friday, Annan headed to the airport for a flight to Paris and then on to the Middle East. He is expected to meet with officials from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and Syria, but his itinerary was not complete as of late Friday.
But Annan's announcement Friday has been called premature by Lebanese Prime Minister Selim Hoss. He said there are still some Israeli military positions inside Lebanese borders.
Earlier Friday, Larsen told reporters that despite some reservations expressed by Lebanese officials, the Lebanese government had made it clear it would respect the decision of the United Nations on the Israeli withdrawal.
Larsen noted the importance of Lebanon's decision this week to deploy about 1,000 security forces in the south, in areas where Hizbollah has been in control.
"The most important element is that the government of Lebanon deploys armed forces in the south in order to restore its authority and in order to restore peace and security. Our task is to assist the government of Lebanon in this endeavor."
Larsen says the number of UN peacekeepers will rise from 4,500 to about 5,600 by mid-July. They are to be deployed in the border regions and patrol extensively in mobile units. Larsen said UNIFIL have felt "welcome" so far in the circumstances surrounding the Israeli withdrawal.