Cease-Fire Brings Quiet Along Lebanon-Israel Border

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Thousands of Lebanese are heading home, and Israelis are emerging from bomb shelters, with the beginning of a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas. The cease-fire put an end to fighting that began five weeks ago when Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Let's not call it peace, but after five weeks of fighting, there is a fragile cease-fire in southern Lebanon. There have been some clashes this morning, but otherwise, the cease-fire that went into effect at 8:00 a.m. local time seems to be holding.

MONTAGNE: More than 1,200 people have been killed and thousands more wounded since the conflict began. And even as the truce began, Israel said it will not withdraw from south Lebanon until a peacekeeping force arrives, and Hezbollah said it will continue to maintain its presence there.

NPR's Ivan Watson is in southern Lebanon. Hello.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We hear that thousands of Lebanese refugees are headed back to their homes. Do they really believe the cease-fire will hold?

WATSON: Many of them are skeptical about whether it will hold, but that didn't stop them. It was amazing, Renee. Within an hour of the start of the cease-fire the roads were jammed heading south from the coastal city of Sidon, south towards the Litani River. People loaded up with their families, with their foam mattresses that they've been sleeping on on relative's floors or on school floors. All headed south going back to their homes, some of the children waving victory signs. I spoke to one man. He said, we have to go back to see, A, whether our house is still standing, and B, we have to start digging some of the bodies out that are still buried under the rubble. At one of the checkpoints that the Lebanese army was controlling to help control traffic near a freshly bombed bridge there were some Hezbollah supporters or members, I can't tell, handing out pink leaflets. And those leaflets said: congratulations to the people on this day of victory.

MONTAGNE: Ivan, I know you traveled south of the Litani River earlier today -and that's between the, you know, that's below, towards the Israel northern border - what did you see there?

WATSON: As you go deeper into what has been the conflict zone, Renee, the roads - this crush of returning refugees thins out. And it's very eerie, actually. You drive through completely empty villages that have really been bombed to smithereens, especially gas stations, buildings. Craters in the roads, burned out cars left and right. Almost nobody seen on the streets except for the occasional two men, perhaps on a motorcycle, and I would presume that these are probably Hezbollah militants. We spoke to two who came through this town where I am right now at a United Nations peacekeeper base. It's a town called Kalouai(ph), just a few miles, if that, from where the Israeli military thrusted forwards on Saturday. And two Hezbollah men on a motorcycle said that the Israeli bombing stopped just two minutes before 8:00 local time. And we saw the same thing in Beirut at the start of this journey, that Israeli warplanes were bombing the area around Beirut even 15 minutes before the cease-fire began.

MONTAGNE: So fighting right up until the deadline this morning. What's Hezbollah's attitude to the fact that thousands of Israeli soldiers do plan to stay in the area, at least until a UN peacekeeping force arrives?

WATSON: Well, recall that the leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, he announced over the weekend that he agreed with this resolution; he would comply with Lebanese soldiers being deployed in the south along with United Nations peacekeepers. But, he said Hezbollah reserved its, what he called natural right, to continue defending homes, to continue defending Lebanese territory as long as Israeli soldiers remain on this land. He says that basically, his men can continue to fight against the Israelis that are believed to be just a few miles away from me.

MONTAGNE: Well, just hearing, I guess, a helicopter going over there? What were we hearing just now behind you?

WATSON: Two men on a motorcycle. Most likely they are Hezbollah members. We never see them with their weapons. The best we can see is perhaps walkie-talkies that they use to communicate with each other. And I think they're probably the only people around here. I've only seen one family returning to this village so far, but I presume there probably will be more in the coming hours.

MONTAGNE: Ivan, thanks very much. NPR's Ivan Watson in southern Lebanon.

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