Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak pledged Tuesday that the army's withdrawal from south Lebanon would be completed in the next few days, weeks ahead of a long-standing July target date.
"We will deploy in the next few days along the international border," Barak said an interview with Israeli army radio, adding that Israel would go through with the operation even if it took 10 days.
His comments followed a large-scale overnight retreat by several hundred Israeli soldiers from south Lebanon after their allied militia the South Lebanon Army collapsed in the face of advances by Shiite Muslim guerrillas.
"When the fog clears, it will be clear that the government has done as it should to bring our sons back home safe and sound and put an end to this tragedy that has gone on for 18 years," Barak said in a separate interview with Israeli public radio.
The prime minister was also ready for more anti-Israeli attacks after the withdrawal.
"We must establish a way of dissuasion that will stop the bloodshed," Barak said. "The Lebanese and Syrian governments are responsible for Hizbollah and for other groups and must take account if we are attacked. All who try to act in Lebanon will be hit hard."
"Hizbullah's attacks against the retreating Israeli soldiers were foreseeable," Barak continued. "I've always said that the moment the retreat begins, Hizbollah will do all it can to show that we are leaving under the pressure of their fire, but in reality it is Hizbollah that has been hit very hard over the past years."
In the meantime, Hizbollah fighters pushed close to the Israeli border Tuesday, reclaiming more Lebanese territory as Israel speeded up its withdrawal from south Lebanon.
Security sources said Israel pulled out three-quarters of its troops under cover of darkness in a surprise overnight withdrawal after the near total collapse of its allied South Lebanon Army (SLA) Monday.
Hundreds of residents retook villages in the central and western sectors of south Lebanon close to the frontier with Israel, including the larger towns of Bint Jbail and coastal Naqura, the gateway to the western sector.
But UN peacekeeping troops barricaded themselves inside their compound headquarters in Naqura.
Just hours earlier, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked the Security Council to double the size of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) from 4,500 to almost 8,000 troops.
Carloads of jubilant citizens and supporters of Hizbollah also entered the Christian villages of Ain Ebel, Debel and Rmeish in the central sector of the occupied zone and Alma ash-Shaab and Qauzah in the west – (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)