Regional and world leaders were voicing cautious optimism over the Middle East peace process as the fiery rhetoric was toned down and threats to attack Israel subsided following its pullout from southern Lebanon.
The head of Lebanon's Hizbollah movement, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, insisted Friday that disputed land and prisoners still held by Israel should be returned, but made no reference to achieving those aims through force.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud described the Israeli pullout from southern Lebanon as a good beginning for peace in Lebanon but added that the Israelis had had no choice but to leave.
In New York, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said he believed "things are going quite well," adding that there was calm at the border and that initial talks between UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen and Lebanese authorities had gone "extremely, extremely well."
The United Nations moved decisively Friday in the aftermath of Israel's withdrawal, sending out UN peacekeepers to patrol the former occupied zone and starting work to certify that the pullback was complete, a process which Annan said would be finished "in the next few days".
Blue-helmeted soldiers in white-painted armored vehicles fanned out in patrols across the former Israeli-held zone while cartographers started work to verify that Israel had withdrawn to its internationally recognized border.
The optimistic tone was accompanied by a flurry of shuttle and telephone diplomacy.
Annan said he had been in contact with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, and the two countries' leaders were cooperating with the United Nations.
Meanwhile Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Friday to discuss peace developments following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, Egypt's MENA news agency said.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was due to hold talks with Mubarak in Cairo later Saturday.
In a victory rally at the border town of Bint Jbeil to mark Israel's ouster from southern Lebanon, Sheikh Nasrallah prayed to God "that the victory be fulfilled with the liberation of the whole territory and the release of all prisoners."
He was referring to the farms of Shabaa on Lebanon's borders with Syria but occupied by Israel since 1967, and Lebanese still held in Israeli jails.
"The enemy continues to detain our brothers in his prisons, he continues to occupy land that is dear to us, the farms of Shabaa," Nasrallah told tens of thousands of jubilant supporters.
"I promise you that every prisoner will soon be returned and the farms of Shabaa will return to Lebanon."
Just a day earlier, Israel offered what it called its "hand in peace" to Lebanon but also warned it would respond instantly and forcefully if its soil came under renewed cross-border attack.
Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara kept up a relatively hardline Friday, warning the United Nations not to try to disarm Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, where he said Lebanese police would uphold law and order following the sudden pullout this week of Israeli troops from the zone.
Despite this much-delayed assertion of UN authority, a question mark remained over the determination of the Lebanese government to reassert early control over the former occupied zone.
Since Israel's hasty withdrawal on Wednesday, southern Lebanon has become a mosaic controlled by militias from the Shiite, Druze and Christian communities, with Hizbollah the dominant one.
That configuration has conjured memories for some of the tensions and lawlessness of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.
Despite growing pressure for the Lebanese army to deploy in the south, United Nations envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said the Beirut authorities were waiting for official confirmation that the Israelis have gone.
"The government of Lebanon takes the stand that it would not deploy its army before the verification work on the border is complete," he said.
Israel occupied the border strip in 1978 and turned it into a self-declared security zone in the hope of thwarting attacks by Palestinian fighters.
But a grinding campaign, spearheaded by Hizbollah, inflicted mounting losses that were too high for domestic opinion, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak last year to promise a complete withdrawal by July 1 -- BINT JBEIL, Lebanon, (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)