BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Israel is expected to pull out the last of its troops from south Lebanon on Sunday, Lebanese officials said on Saturday, in line with a U.N. resolution that ended a bloody war with Hizbollah.
The officials, who declined to be identified, said the commander of U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon Major General Alain Pellegrini had informed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on Friday that Israel planned to complete its withdrawal by Sunday.
“We have to wait and see if the Israelis will stick to their word this time,” one official said. “We’ve had similar promises in the past that did not materialise.”
Pellegrini’s spokesman had no comment on the report and there was no immediate reaction from Israel.
Israeli forces have gradually been pulling out of territory they captured during a 34-day war with Hizbollah guerrillas. The war ended with a truce on Aug. 14.
Israeli officials had said they hoped to pull out all troops by last weekend, but this was delayed while discussions with the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on rules of engagement continued. Israel is worried that the peacekeepers and Lebanese army would not end Hizbollah’s presence near its border.
U.N. Resolution 1701, which ended the war, authorises up to 15,000 UNIFIL troops to join a similar number of Lebanese army troops in deploying in the south as the Israelis leave.
The resolution calls for a demilitarised zone south of the Litani River patrolled by the Lebanese army backed by UNIFIL. Hizbollah has rejected international calls for it to disarm.
Around 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed in the fighting, which started when Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.
An Israeli cabinet minister said on Saturday Israel should assassinate Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah when the opportunity arises to do so without causing a large number of bystander casualties.
“Nasrallah’s life is forfeit,” Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israel’s Army Radio. “He’s bad for the Jews, he’s bad for the Arabs, he’s bad for the Christians. We should wait for the right opportunity and not leave him alive.”
Nasrallah’s prestige at home and in the Arab world was boosted by Hizbollah’s survival in the face of the Middle East’s mightiest military — which heavily bombed several suspected guerrilla headquarters, Nasrallah’s home and his office.
Nasrallah spent the war with Israel in hiding, emerging last week, under heavy security, to address a large “victory rally” in Beirut. His appearance stirred speculation that Israel could assassinate him. But Ben-Eliezer said he would have opposed this.
“Yes, we should eliminate him. But we have to make sure that thousands of people aren’t vulnerable (to injury),” he said.
Nasrallah’s predecessor, Sayyed Abbas Musawi, was assassinated in a 1992 Israeli helicopter air strike that also killed his wife and child.