BEIRUT (Reuters) – Israeli forces prepared to make way for U.N. peacekeepers in parts of south Lebanon on Wednesday, but their commander said troops could stay for months if it takes that long for a bigger U.N. force to deploy.
Hizbollah, which fought an Israeli onslaught for 34 days until a U.N. truce took hold on Monday, has said it has the right to attack Israeli forces remaining on Lebanese soil.
“Israel will leave forces in Lebanon until the multinational force arrives, even if it takes months,” army chief Dan Halutz told a parliamentary committee, Israel Radio reported.
Halutz had said on Tuesday the Israeli withdrawal could be completed within 7 to 10 days.
In Beirut, diplomats strove to consolidate the truce.
The foreign ministers of France and Turkey, both potential contributors to an expanded U.N. force, arrived in the Lebanese capital. Their Malaysian counterpart, whose country may also offer troops, was due later with Pakistan’s foreign minister.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was to meet the visiting ministers separately, an aide said. His talks with France’s Philippe Douste-Blazy were to focus on the U.N. force, the reopening of Lebanon’s ports and airport, and humanitarian aid.
Israeli officials said the plan was for an existing U.N. force, known as UNIFIL, to deploy over the next two days in some Israeli positions not seen by the army as strategically crucial.
At the same time, Israeli officials said, the Lebanese army should begin shifting to the Litani River in southern Lebanon, and then slowly move southward as the Israeli army pulls back.
In the southern port city of Tyre, workers dug a temporary grave for more than 100 unidentified war dead.
Hospital officials said the bodies would be buried in a mass grave at noon unless relatives claimed them. A similar burial for 72 bodies took place on July 21 to clear crowded morgues.
The truce has prompted tens of thousands of mostly Shi’ite Muslim refugees to head home, even though Israeli bombing has devastated many towns and villages in the south.
People in northern Israel have also been returning to their homes after fleeing weeks of Hizbollah rocket strikes.
Two tankers carrying fuel were due to dock in Lebanon, where an Israeli sea blockade has caused shortages and power cuts.
“Two ships have got permission and guarantees to dock today and one should be coming in tomorrow,” said Bahij Abu Hamze, head of Lebanon’s Association of Fuel Importers.
To strengthen the fragile “cessation of hostilities,” the Lebanese army will start moving 15,000 troops south of the Litani on Thursday, a senior Lebanese political source said.
UNIFIL now numbers 2,000, but the Security Council on Friday authorised its expansion to 15,000 and strengthened its mandate.
Senior French officers were due to meet U.N. peacekeeping officials in New York to discuss a “concept of operations” that would define how the bigger UNIFIL would implement its mission.
“It is our hope that there can be a deployment of up to 3,500 troops within 10 days to two weeks,” Hedi Annabi, an assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, told reporters.
However, a senior U.N. official said much depended on whether France becomes the backbone of the force.
France, which now commands UNIFIL, has not yet offered formally to lead the new force. Other European nations who might contribute contingents are awaiting a cue from Paris.
A core issue is whether Hizbollah will vacate the area south of the Litani, enabling UNIFIL and Lebanese troops to take full control of a region the guerrillas have roamed for two decades.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, concerned that Hizbollah will remain in the south, sees U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan later in the day to discuss U.N. troop plans.
Hizbollah has promised to cooperate with Lebanese and U.N. forces, but has made clear it will keep its weapons — although Lebanese political sources say the Beirut government is weighing a compromise whereby Hizbollah would keep them out of sight.
At least 1,110 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed in the conflict that erupted after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.
Israel says it killed more than 530 Hizbollah fighters, including Sajed Dewayer, which it describes as the head of Hizbollah’s special forces. Hizbollah puts its death toll at about 80.
Israel may have ended its Lebanon offensive, but it continues to attack Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, where an air strike killed one militant and his father on Wednesday, witnesses and medics said.