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Israel's Barak vows to help south Lebanon refugees
JERUSALEM, August 25 (Reuters) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met the former head of Israel's surrogate militia in south Lebanon on Friday and pledged to help the Lebanese who fled the area after the hasty withdrawal of Israeli troops.
More than 6,500 people, mostly from families with members who had served in the South Lebanese Army, fled across the border into Israel after the Jewish state ended its 22-year occupation of the zone in May.
In a statement issued after Barak and General Antoine Lahd's meeting in Tel Aviv, the Defense Ministry said:
"Prime Minister and Defense Minster Ehud Barak said that Israel has a great moral responsibility towards the SLA soldiers and their families and that Israel is working to ease their rehabilitation."
Praising the soldiers as "patriotic Lebanese," the statement said that Barak would "guide appointed officials in the coming days" in order to "strengthen the effort to advance a solution."
It did not elaborate on possible steps that might be taken.
Most of the refugees are dispersed in temporary accommodation in the north of Israel, where they face an uncertain future, unwilling to return to villages that are now controlled by Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas.
Hezbollah had fought strenuously to oust Israel from the 15-km (nine mile) occupation zone it set up in 1985 with the declared aim of protecting its northern villages and towns from attacks by the guerrillas.
"The General brought up with the prime minister the problems that the SLA are coping with and asked him to work towards a solution," the statement said.
Many Lebanese refugees have criticized Israel for ignoring their plight and for failing to prepare for their absorption.
They have also criticized Lahd for failing to honor a promise that he made prior to Israel's pullout to stay with his troops and die defending their land rather than flee into exile.
The Defense Ministry said that Barak and Lahd had agreed to continue to stay in touch on the matter of the refugees.
Nearly 400 Lebanese refugees arrived in Germany this month to take up a German offer of sanctuary.
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