MARWAHEEN, Lebanon, (AP) -The Israeli army abandoned positions in Lebanon early Sunday, withdrawing the last of its troops from its neighbor and fulfilling a key condition of the Aug. 14 cease-fire that ended a monthlong war against Hezbollah.
Witnesses said the Israelis began moving tanks and armored carriers out of a few pockets near the border in southern Lebanon after midnight. Under the cover of darkness, the roar of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles could be heard on the Lebanese side as they moved across border.
Israeli military officials said the last soldiers returned to Israel around 2:30 a.m. ahead of the onset of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, at sundown. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under military guidelines.
Israel had gradually reduced its troop presence since the Aug. 14 cease-fire from a peak of 30,000 during the fighting to several hundred in recent days. The final pullout was swift, taking just several hours to complete.
An armored column creaked across the border at the Israeli border community of Moshav Avivim, leaving tread marks in the soil and sending a large cloud of dust into the air that was illuminated by the vehicle’s headlights. Later, the last soldiers were seen boarding a bus at nearby Moshav Zarit.
Israel sent the troops into Lebanon shortly after Hezbollah guerrillas abducted two soldiers and killed three others in a July 12 cross-border raid. More than 150 Israelis and 850 Lebanese were killed in 34 days of fighting.
Israeli officials had been reluctant to withdraw the last of the troops. They cited disagreements over the deployment of Lebanese and U.N. forces in southern Lebanon, which has long been a stronghold of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas. Israel is concerned about the force’s ability to prevent Hezbollah, which launched 4,000 rockets into Israel during the fighting, from rearming.
Israeli forces abandoned their hilltop position near the village of Marwaheen early Sunday.
Not long after they had left, a white U.N. armored personnel carrier with three Ghanaian soldiers on top arrived at Marwaheen from a nearby U.N. base. The vehicle spent about 15 minutes there as one of the soldiers photographed the area. They refused to answer questions, but it appeared that the U.N. troops were verifying the Israeli withdrawal, following the procedure they had used since Israel began withdrawing its troops.
Two Lebanese plainclothes military intelligence officers then inspected the site. One said the Lebanese army could begin deploying there later Sunday or Monday.
Another man in civilian clothing who came to look at the area said he was from Amal, the Shiite group allied with Hezbollah.
The Israeli military had used Marwaheen as a communications outpost during the 1982-2000 occupation of a security zone in southern Lebanon. After Israel withdrew its army in 2000, Hezbollah took charge of the strategic hill that overlooks Israeli border areas. The Israelis captured it when they entered Lebanon during the July 12-Aug. 14 fighting.
The U.N. resolution that ended the fighting calls for 15,000 peacekeepers to work with an equal number of Lebanese soldiers to prevent another outbreak of hostilities. It mandates a full Israeli pullout and requires the south be kept weapons-free except for arms approved by the Lebanese government.
Some 10,000 Lebanese soldiers and more than 5,000 U.N. troops have been deployed in the south.