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South Lebanon Army withdrawal may be imminent after recent talks

JERUSALEM, May 26 (JTA) — Israel and Lebanon have reportedly been holding talks via Western intermediaries aimed at withdrawing troops of the Israel-allied South Lebanon Army from a portion of the southern Lebanon security zone. Israel views the SLA pullout as a confidence-building gesture in advance of negotiations with Syria, the leading power broker in Lebanon, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Wednesday. The paper cited an SLA security source that the talks are in “high gear” and that an SLA pullout from an enclave at the northern tip of the security zone could be carried out within weeks. Outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who has been overseeing the initiative, has briefed Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak about the plan, which Barak approved, the paper added. During his election campaign, Barak pledged to pull Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon within a year after being elected. Israel’s army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, said this week that the army supports an Israeli pullback from Lebanon, but only on condition that it be done in the framework of security arrangements with Lebanon. According to the Ha’aretz report, Arens met Tuesday with the commander of the SLA forces, Gen. Antoine Lahad, to discuss the withdrawal. Senior SLA officers are objecting to the withdrawal, saying it could enable Hezbollah to transfer weapons from the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley into the security zone, the paper added. Meanwhile, fighting in southern Lebanon continued this week. Israeli troops killed two Hezbollah gunmen during clashes Tuesday night in the security zone. The Israel Defense Force has now killed 11 Hezbollah gunmen this year, according to officials with the Shi’ite organization. In another clash Tuesday, an SLA soldier was killed and two others were wounded, one of them seriously, when Hezbollah gunmen fired a rocket at a car in which they were traveling. Israel said it considered the attack, which took place inside a village, as a violation of a 1996 cease-fire barring attacks on or from civilian areas.