Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon ended at 6:42 a.m. Wednesday (0342 GMT) with the closure of military border gate number 93 after dozens of armored vehicles and hundreds of jubilant soldiers had poured back into the Jewish state, reported AFP Wednesday.
"At the moment there is not one single soldier in Lebanon," a senior military source told AFP on condition of anonymity. "The story is over."
The last vehicle to enter Israel was a Merkava tank of the 7th Armored Brigade which took part in the 1973 war.
Beforehand a bulldozer had erected a sand barrier across the road inside Lebanon and another in no-man's land between the border fences.
For nearly four hours the tanks, armor-plated jeeps, trucks and personnel carriers had streamed across the border near the town of Metullah. The delighted soldiers waved the white and blue Israeli flags which had floated over the various positions in the occupied zone.
Others gave the thumbs up sign or sang or danced on top of tanks, happy to be out of Lebanon where battles with the Hizbollah had intensified in recent days and weeks.
Israeli radio said the withdrawal had been carried out without casualties.
The retirement was originally planned to take several weeks and be over by July but was carried out in little more than 24 hours following the collapse of Israel's militia allies, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).
As the troops came across scores of helicopters buzzed overhead and artillery shelled the southern Lebanese hills to protect the recreating soldiers.
Security sources in southern Lebanon said the Israeli army had abandoned its headquarters in Marjayoun in the east of the buffer zone it had occupied since 1978 at around 2:00 a.m. Wednesday (2300 GMT Tuesday).
The last position was blown up at 0040 GMT, but the noise of exploding munitions could still be heard two hours afterwards for several kilometers (miles) around, while flames and thick clouds of smoke rose into the sky.
Israel's accelerated retirement had begun early Tuesday as Hizbollah fighters accompanying thousands of civilians returning to their former homes swept across much of the region after the SLA cracked.
THE TEXT OF BARAK ORDERING ISRAELI SOLDIERS OUT OF LEBANON
Following is the text of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's announcement early Wednesday ordering all Israeli soldiers to leave Lebanon, reported by Reuters:
In accordance with the decision of the Cabinet of Monday, May 22, 2000, which empowers the prime minister and defense minister, in consultation with the chief of the general staff, to decide on the date of the withdrawal from Lebanon, the prime minister and defense minister ordered the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from Lebanon.
The prime minister calls on the power factors in Lebanon to exercise restraint and responsibility and says that Israel will react severely to any attack on its sovereignty, its civilians or its soldiers.
SLA: SURRENDER OR FLEEING TO ISRAEL
By late Tuesday night more than 2,500 SLA men and their families had fled across the border, but about 1,000 more were still waiting. Lebanese security services said 1,250 had surrendered to resistance groups or the Lebanese army.
The withdrawal, according to a pledge by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, had begun May 9, but as it continued the militiamen, under increasing pressure from Hizbollah and fearful of reprisals, began deserting.
Their wholesale abandonment of positions Monday triggered Israel's decision to give up, pulling out from the west and center of the buffer zone early Tuesday and the remainder Wednesday.
CELEBRATING A GLORIOUS VICTORY
As the withdrawal closed one of the most bitter and bloody chapters in Middle East history, thousands of Lebanese civilians rejoiced in the streets of Beirut.
"The time of Arab defeats is over and the time of victories has begun," Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Hizbollah led the campaign to expel Israel, told a jubilant crowd.
"While for the Zionist enemy, the time of victories is over and the time of defeats has begun."
He was speaking at a ceremony to welcome 140 prisoners freed from the notorious prison in Khiam, stormed by an angry mob Tuesday as their SLA guards fled.
"He adds that Israel will respond severely to any attacks on its sovereignty, citizens or soldiers."
In a letter earlier to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Barak claimed Syria "has been preparing the ground for violent acts against Israel" after the Israeli army left Lebanon.
The letter said it was "primarily the responsibility of the Lebanese government to enhance stability in the region and prevent terrorist attacks against Israel from Lebanese soil."
Annan's special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen left New York on Tuesday for Beirut, saying his first priority was "to see for the security" of the local civilian population and the 4,513 troops in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
His second priority would be "to address immediately the issue of certifying the withdrawal" of Israeli forces.
The Security Council on Tuesday endorsed demands from Annan for "explicit commitments" on the safety of UN personnel including UNIFIL, which has the job of overseeing the withdrawal of Israeli forces.
Annan said the Lebanese government must take "decisive and prompt action" to restore its authority in the southern zone by restoring public services as well as law and order.
And he said Lebanon and Syria must cooperate with the UN in identifying lines to be used for confirming the withdrawal of Israeli forces -- a point of controversy when it comes to the easternmost part of the UNIFIL area.
SYRIA SEES NEED TO AVOID ESCALATION
According to Reuters, Syria said the withdrawal proved Israel had failed to achieve its objectives through occupation and would find no peace until it gave up all Arab land.
“Israel's accelerated withdrawal from south Lebanon proves that its occupation of the area during the last 22 years was a total failure and a disaster,” a Syrian information official said in Damascus.
But Syria and the United States both affirmed the need to avoid military escalation in Lebanon, a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
Barak, in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told world leaders Syria was doing “everything in its power to prevent and sabotage” Israel's withdrawal from its 15-km (nine-mile) wide south Lebanon security zone set up in 1985 after its initial military deployment in 1978.
“To this end, it has been preparing the ground for violent acts against Israel” after its withdrawal was completed, he said -- (Several Sources)
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