BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon threatened to seek action from the UN Security Council if Israel does not complete its promised troop pullout by the end of next week, as Hezbollah prepared to celebrate “victory” in the month-long war.
Defence Minister Elias Murr warned that if Israel, which still has troops in the south well over a month after a UN-sponsored ceasefire came into force on August 14, did not pull out the last of its troops by Friday of next week it would go to the Security Council.
Murr said the Lebanon representative of the UN secretary general, Geir Pedersen, “informed me yesterday (Wednesday) that the maximum deadline for the (Israeli) withdrawal will be next Friday, or a week from now.
“If the withdrawal does not take place by next Friday, we will resort to the Security Council,” he told reporters ahead of a weekly cabinet meeting.
Murr said UN, Lebanese and Israeli officers would hold a meeting in the border town of Naqura “to discuss the issue of the withdrawal.” He did not specify the date.
On Wednesday, Israel announced it was delaying the completion of its promised withdrawal, initially scheduled for Friday, until after the Jewish new year holiday which ends Sunday evening.
It said questions still had to be ironed out with the beefed-up UN peacekeeping force and the Lebanese army, both of which have been extending their deployment in south Lebanon.
Israel had said that it would complete its withdrawal once the UN force, which is eventually mandated to total up to 15,000 troops, had deployed 5,000 soldiers, a threshold that commanders say it has already reached.
Israel’s delayed pullout looked set to cast a shadow over Hezbollah preparations to celebrate a “divine victory” with a massive rally in the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut Friday.
Hezbollah’s hardcore supporters were taking the coastal road to Beirut from southern Lebanon, on foot as well as by car, for Friday’s show of strength, while the government complained of renewed Israeli violations of its airspace.
Villagers who gathered in Tyre for the 80-kilometre (50-mile) march to Beirut donned the yellow T-shirts of Hezbollah and caps marked “Divine Victory”, even as Israeli aircraft made a low-altitude pass.
Some 600 men and boys marched crossed the Zahrani river and into Sidon, another port city, several hours later, an AFP correspondent said. Hezbollah had said thousands were taking part in the march, with its echoes of a traditional Shiite pilgrimage.
“Let us kiss your feet,” said a banner, addressed to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who is reportedly mulling his first public appearance since the conflict at the rally, despite the threat of an Israeli assassination attempt.
Fighting off a tumble in his coalition’s approval ratings since the July-August war, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert joined the fray Thursday evening to insist that he had no regrets about the Lebanon war and that it was the Jewish state which emerged victorious.
“If it had to be done again, I would do it again,” the embattled premier said in an interview with public television. “It was the right decision.”
The rift on the Beirut political scene amid Hezbollah calls for a new national unity government has also come to the fore, with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora stopping short of viewing the conflict which ended with an August 14 ceasefire as a victory.
“We succeeded in preventing Israel from winning the war,” he said on Arab television, while pointing out that he had not been invited to the demonstration.
Siniora has said the war cost Lebanon billions of dollars, setting back the country several years, on top of the more than 1,200 people killed in the 34-day conflict sparked by Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers.
In an address to the UN General Assembly in New York, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, who like Hezbollah enjoys the support of neighbouring Syria, said his country reserved the right to seek reparations for the damage caused by the conflict.
“Lebanon retains the right to prosecute Israel before the competent bodies, most notably this venerable Assembly, or that of the International Tribunal, and to request the appropriate reparations for all the catastrophes Israel has inflicted on Lebanon,” he said.
“The toll of destruction runs through several thousand housing units, hundreds of bridges, ports, airports and factories.”