TEL AVIV (Jul. 1)
The Lebanese regular army took over the southern Lebanon port city of Sidon on Monday, displacing large elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who relinquished their positions in town but not their weapons.
The Beirut government, which enjoys Syrian protection, was able to extend its jurisdiction as far south as Sidon, as part of a plan to eject all factional militias from the once war-torn country.
The plan, which was launched in November in and around Beirut, calls for the PLO to also put down its arms. But the PLO has resisted.
Over 1,000 Lebanese soldiers supported by 130 tanks and armored vehicles entered Sidon. They were unopposed by some 10,000 armed PLO men, about 6,000 of them loyal to Yasir Arafat’s mainstream Fatah wing.
But when the Lebanese regulars tried to move east of the city, they were blocked by heavily armed PLO units guarding the Ein Hilweh and Mieh Mieh refugee camps, which are Palestinian strongholds.
The PLO insisted it had to protect the camps “against Israeli aggression.”
The showdown between the Lebanese army and PLO was precluded last week by the flight of thousands of civilians, who feared getting caught in the cross fire between the Lebanese army and the Palestinians. Many who fled took refuge overnight in the Israeli-controlled southern Lebanon security zone.
Uri Lubrani, coordinator of Israeli affairs in southern Lebanon, said Monday that “any unarmed person wishing to take refuge in the Israeli controlled region will be welcome.”
The Israel Defense Force and its allied South Lebanon Army were on alert Monday as they observed, from their vantage points in the southern Lebanon zone, the arrival of the Lebanese troops and the pullback of the PLO.
The SLA commander, Gen. Antoine Lehad, said he would not allow the PLO to attack his men behind a screen provided by the official Lebanese army. But he predicted a showdown between the Lebanese regulars and the PLO in a few days.
It is not known whether Beirut intends to move its Syrian-protected forces further south toward the Israeli border. If it does, a confrontation could occur with the IDF and SLA.