BEIRUT (Reuters) -Lebanon’s government on Wednesday ordered 15,000 troops to move south to take full control, with U.N. peacekeepers, when Israeli troops withdraw after a 34-day war with Hizbollah guerrillas.
Officials said Lebanese troops would deploy south of the Litani River, about 20 km (13 miles) from the Israeli border, on Thursday.
The cabinet, which includes two Hizbollah ministers, reached its decision only hours after Israel’s army chief said a possible pullout from the south within 10 days depended on the Lebanese army and a beefed-up U.N. force moving in quickly.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, whose country may lead the new U.N. force and who called earlier in the day for a quick Lebanese army deployment, met Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in Beirut just before the cabinet session.
But a cabinet statement expected shortly would say the army would not allow the presence of any armed group but would not mention any withdrawal of Hizbollah’s Shi’ite Muslim fighters or the rockets they rained on northern Israel during the conflict.
Israel and Hizbollah have generally maintained a fragile truce in the south since Monday, following a U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized up to 13,000 well-armed troops to augment the 2,000-strong UNIFIL force now in Lebanon.
An estimated 200,000 mostly Shi’ite refugees have streamed home this week, many of them to villages devastated by bombing.
The truce has allowed belated burials of some war victims.
“It’s the first chance we’ve had. We’ve been on the road for 11 hours,” said Raouf Shayato, who arrived at Tyre hospital to collect the body of his cousin Nazira, killed on July 22.
More than 100 corpses lie unclaimed at the overflowing hospital mortuary. Officials postponed plans for a mass burial to give relatives more time to collect them.
Civilians have returned en masse without waiting for Israel to leave pockets of territory it has occupied in the south.
“If the Lebanese army does not move down within a number of days to the south … the way I see it, we must stop our withdrawal,” Israeli army chief Dan Halutz said.
However, a senior Israeli government official, who asked not to be named, said Israeli forces would not withdraw completely until the expanded U.N. force and Lebanese army move in.
Before that, the official said, the army would pull back gradually to a narrow no-go zone along the border, which it could control largely with artillery, tank fire and air strikes.
Hizbollah reiterated that it has the right to attack any Israeli forces remaining on Lebanese soil.
“The presence of Israeli tanks in the south is an aggression and the resistance reserves its right to face such aggression if it persists,” Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, Hizbollah’s top official in south Lebanon, told reporters in Tyre.
Hizbollah has promised to cooperate with Lebanese and U.N. forces, but has made clear it will keep its weapons — although political sources say it has offered to keep them out of sight.
The United Nations said on Tuesday it wanted to deploy up to 3,500 new soldiers in south Lebanon within two weeks.
Douste-Blazy said France was ready to play an important role a bigger UNIFIL, but that many other nations should contribute.
Israel may oppose the inclusion of troops from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Objections from Israel could complicate efforts to swell the U.N. force to 15,000. A senior U.N. official said he doubted enough nations would come forward to reach that goal soon.
Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia have each offered to send 1,000 troops to Lebanon. They have no diplomatic ties with Israel and strongly support the Palestinian cause.
Douste-Blazy also urged Israel to end an air and sea blockade imposed on Lebanon at the start of the war.
Israel has indicated it will keep up the blockade until measures are in place to prevent Hizbollah from rearming.
But at least one tanker carrying fuel reached Lebanon, where the blockade has caused shortages and power cuts. Another two were expected to dock in the next 24 hours, importers said.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora hosted a lunch for Douste-Blazy and the foreign ministers of Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan, some of which may also contribute troops to UNIFIL.
Germany could contribute but will not decide until the exact nature of the operation is known, a government spokesman said.
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.
The Lebanon offensive may have ended, but Israel is keeping up attacks on militants in the Gaza Strip, where an air strike killed one militant and his father on Wednesday, medics said.