Jerusalem (CNS) Leaving abandoned equipment and nervous residents behind them, members of the Israeli-allied South Lebanese Army completed their withdrawal from a Christian enclave early Thursday, shaken by another two deaths at the hands of Hizb'Allah militiamen.
Lebanese police set up a roadblock shortly after the last SLA men and their families left the area after midnight. Lebanese radio said internal security forces entered the town after the SLA departure.
The SLA exit ends a 14-year era seen by some inhabitants as a necessary safeguard against Islamist encroachment into a traditionally Christian area, by others as an unwanted occupation by Israeli "collaborators."
Located on a salient jutting out from the Israeli security zone, Jezzine and its environs was the one area of Lebanon free of a Syrian or Israeli military presence.
As such, it was regarded by some Christian Maronites as a "liberated zone," and this week's developments have come as a shock.
Most of Lebanon is dominated by Syria, which has 35,000 troops in the country. Western terrorism experts say Hizb'Allah the organization behind the 291 deaths in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut operates with Syrian collusion, and Iranian funding.
In a statement sent to CNS, an underground umbrella grouping calling itself the Lebanese Christian Resistance said the withdrawal decision amounted to the "termination to the last free enclave in Lebanon.
"Jezzine was the last free enclave which was not under direct foreign occupation, neither Syrian nor Israeli. The withdrawal of the SLA from Jezzine and the hand over to the Syrian-Iranian alliance with all its extensions, is nothing but a termination of that enclave."
Another group representing Christian Lebanese in the region and in exile, the World Lebanese Organization, issued a statement in the U.S. calling for a conference of all "forces of the resistance" to reevaluate the situation.
"After the pullout from Jezzine, the remnants of the Lebanese Christian forces opposed to the Syrian occupation must merge their efforts and coordinate their plans," it said.
WLO coordinator Pierre Elias cited five envisaged consequences of the Jezzine pullback: the town's control by "pro-Syrian forces"; the "beginning of the end of the security zone"; more security risks to Israel's northern border; the "ethnic cleansing" of southern Lebanese Christians; and the "end of the alliance between the Christians of Lebanon and Israel."
Some Maronite officials in the Jezzine area reportedly held meetings with Hizb'Allah and Lebanese government officials to seek assurances that the townsfolk would come to no harm. Lebanese media quoted some residents as welcoming the SLA's exit.
The end of the evacuation Thursday was without incident, following Hizb'Allah assaults on the retreating militiamen earlier this week.
The deaths on Tuesday of two SLA men, killed by roadside bombs which injured a third soldier, prompted a stern Israeli warning that it would not sit quietly by while the SLA was being attacked.
The departure from Jezzine is seen as a trial run for a possible complete Israeli withdrawal from the nine-mile wide security zone it has maintained since 1985. Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak has undertaken to get the troops out of Lebanon within one year.
SLA commander Antoine Lahad said he had decided to pull his men out of Jezzine because the militia "could no longer endure more slow deaths."
The SLA's Jezzine commander was recently badly wounded, and his replacement subsequently killed in Hizb'Allah roadside bomb attacks.
In an apparent effort to encourage its Maronite ally, Israel's army chief, Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz, ordered that SLA outposts in the buffer zone be supplied with new equipment, and that the salaries of its soldiers be significantly increased.
Outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Arens blamed demoralization among the SLA forces on stepped-up lobbying within Israel for a unilateral withdrawal from the buffer zone.
Israel has lost more than 900 soldiers in Lebanon since 1982.