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Lebanese premier says Hezbollah no cause for worry in southern Lebanon
KHIAM PRISON, Lebanon (CNN) -- Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss rejected concerns on Thursday that Hezbollah guerrillas -- and not Lebanese security forces -- were controlling the streets of southern Lebanon in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from the region.
"Hezbollah is one of the Lebanese parties and the leading one, actually," the prime minister said. "They are a very responsible party, and they will be cooperating with the United Nations force when it deploys and will be cooperating with the government."
Israeli soldiers completed their withdrawal from the so-called "security zone" along the border between the two countries on Wednesday, six weeks ahead of a deadline imposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for the withdrawal.
Israel, which had occupied parts of southern Lebanon since 1978, carved out the border zone in 1985 to put a buffer between the Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli civilians in the north of Israel.
"It's a great day for Lebanon," Hoss said. "This is a day when all Lebanese in all districts are celebrating the liberation of the south of Lebanon from Israeli occupation which had lasted for 22 years."
Preparing for U.N. force deployment
Hoss said Lebanon was involved in providing security for the region while the U.N. prepares to move in its peacekeeping force, according to the U.N. resolution that also called for the Israeli withdrawal. The Lebanese army, he said, will not be deployed until U.N. forces have the area under control.
A U.N. envoy arrived in Beirut late Wednesday for critical talks on establishing security along the Lebanese-Israeli border as the final remnants of Israel's 22-year occupation were dismantled or blown up.
The U.N.'s Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, was to meet with Lebanese officials to discuss the role of U.N. peacekeepers in the border region. The United Nations wants the area transferred to Lebanese government control with the help of a U.N. peacekeeping force that would almost double in size to 7,900.
Lebanese national holiday
Lebanon declared Thursday a national holiday, and many Lebanese, waving yellow Hezbollah flags and the green, white and red flags of their country, trekked to the border to celebrate. The notorious Khiam prison -- run by the Israeli-allied militia, the South Lebanon Army -- was a top holiday draw.
Hoss was among the holiday travelers at the prison, which was holding 140 prisoners on the day the SLA abandoned the facility and its doors were opened.
"It was a very sad moment for me to see this place," the prime minister said. "It was horrendous, actually. This is the place where the Israelis incarcerated so many Lebanese ... for years in a row and subjected them to the worst of torture. It was very inhuman, and it was very saddening for any Lebanese to look into such a place."
Israel has denied any connection with Khiam prison, but the Lebanese make no distinction between the Israelis and the Israeli-backed Lebanese militia that operated the jail.
The collapse of the SLA, in the face of advancing Hezbollah fighters, precipitated the early withdrawal of the Israeli troops.
Barak warns against attacks on northern Israel
Elsewhere along the metal fence border, Hezbollah guerrillas brandished weapons and taunted Israeli soldiers standing guard, now in their own territory. The Israelis watched impassively as one group of guerrillas paraded a car-mounted rocket launcher past the fence.
Barak, who has rallied considerable support in Israel for the withdrawal, warned Lebanon and Syria -- which also occupies part of Lebanon -- that Israeli would not tolerate any attacks on its northern lands.
"If someone is attacking Israel over its border and shooting, it is an act of war," he said on Wednesday.
"I do not recommend to any element ... to try and harm soldiers or Israeli citizens within the state of Israel now that we are deployed within our territory," he said.
Israeli premier warns against hostile acts from Lebanon side of border
Knesset - The Israeli Parliament
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