Lebanon to put 15,000 men in south if Israel pulls out

BEIRUT - The Lebanese government said on Monday it is ready to deploy 15,000 troops in the south up to the border with Israel once the Jewish state pulls out all soldiers from the area.

"The government asserts that it is ready to send 15,000 troops to the south, with the Israeli withdrawal beyond the Blue Line," or Lebanon`s UN-drawn border with Israel, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said after a cabinet meeting.

Asked about the military presence of Hezbollah which has been controlling the border area, Aridi said: "Where the army will be, it will be on its own."

"Hezbollah is staying in the south as a party which represents a political and social strata, which has its role and position and has its effects in Lebanon`s decision-making," he said.

Responding to a question about Hezbollah`s agreement to the decision, Aridi said there is an "agreement on all the steps, and we do not necessarily announce everything."

He said the Lebanese government also declared its readiness to accept the help of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) "when need be in order to facilitate the deployment of the army."

Defense Minister Elias Murr said the decision was adopted unanimously by the government, including Hezbollah cabinet members.

"It was approved unanimously, without reservations from anyone," he said.

Murr said "this is a clear message to the international community and the UN Security Council before its meeting about Lebanon`s clear intention to send the army" to the south.

Israel launched a massive offensive on Lebanon to crush Hezbollah after the Shiite militant guerrilla group captured two soldiers at the border on July 12 to secure a prisoners` exchange.

UN Security Council resolutions have called for the deployement of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon down to the border with Israel which have been under controlled by Hezbollah guerrillas.

Hezbollah`s guerrilla warfare has been instrumental in leading to Israel`s decision to end its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in May 2000.

Since then, the group has vowed to continue to launch attacks to free the disputed Shebaa Farms border area from Israeli occupation and seek the release of Lebanese detainees in Israeli jails.

An official source earlier told AFP that the Lebanese military has called up reserve troops as part of plans to deploy the army to the border with Israel.

A senior military official told AFP that "the measure is meant to beef up the capabilities of the military, awaiting still undefined future missions."

The Lebanese state news agency said reserve troops should "show up between August 10 and August 16."

Earlier Monday, Siniora said at an Arab foreign ministers` meeting in Beirut that his government was ready to "send the army up to the international border."

Siniora also told the Washington Post that Lebanon was ready to deploy 15,000 soldiers in southern Lebanon to the border with Israel.

He said the government was ready to accept a 2,000-member international force led by UNIFIL, until a political settlement can be worked out and a more permanent international peacekeeping force can be assembled and deployed to Lebanon.

"And this can be done quickly," he said.

"This is a Lebanese objective and it suits the Israelis` objectives as well," he added.

08/07/2006 20:41 GMT

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