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Lebanon border erupts in chaos

Israel's orderly pullout from south Lebanon crumbles as its proxy militia turns and flees.

Israel's plans for an orderly withdrawal from occupied south Lebanon unraveled into chaos Monday when Islamic militants and Lebanese civilians marched home to their villages and Israel's proxy militia turned and fled.

As thousands of celebrating Lebanese villagers waved flags, threw rice and cried in one anothers' arms, Israelis feared for the security of their northern residents as Hezbollah guerrillas moved within a mile of the border and the occupation zone was split in two.

Several Lebanese civilians were killed and dozens wounded after Israeli tanks, warplanes and ships began shelling inside Lebanon to stop the return of villagers to areas that were quickly being abandoned by the Israeli-paid South Lebanese Army.

Israeli officials, expecting retaliatory rockets from Hezbollah, ordered northern residents into bomb shelters after some had watched through kibbutz fences as their two-decade buffer zone disappeared well before preparations were finished for Israel's July 7 withdrawal deadline.

"We watched a war going on, like in the movies," said Hanan Rubinsky, the secretary of Kibbutz Misgav Am, after climbing into an underground shelter. "I'm sure the Israeli army will know what to do, but right now none of our preparations is complete."

The deteriorating situation made conditions for the planned Israeli withdrawal much more dangerous and prompted urgent calls for Prime Minister Ehud Barak to pull back Israel's troops at once.

After a late night meeting, Barak's security advisers authorized him to advance the date of the withdrawal.

The Israeli army reportedly was sending more troops to reinforce the border areas.

The situation put Hezbollah right on Israel's border without a deterrent force for the first time since Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978. It may make it harder for a U.N. peacekeeping force to fill the vacuum when the Israelis pull out.

While some Israeli officials tried to downplay the threat, saying they had planned for such a scenario, others sounded more worried and issued unequivocal warnings that an attack would be met with retaliation not limited to the border areas, and possibly another Israeli invasion.

"I don't recommend to anyone in the area to provoke a response from Israel," Barak said. "It will be in entirely different places, which will prove very painful."

The withdrawal, which Barak promised a year ago during his election campaign, had been quietly under way. Israel had no more than 200 soldiers left in the zone, down from 1,000 at the height of the occupation, and this week they were ordered to be combat-ready to pull out as of June 1.

Barak hoped to complete the redeployment in coordination with the United Nations, which was supposed to meet this week to decide under what conditions it would deploy a beefed-up peacekeeping force in the zone.

The situation began to deteriorate Sunday, when Lebanese villagers who fled their homes in the occupation zone years ago raised flags and marched back home. They reportedly were encouraged by activists from the Hezbollah and Amal movements, which also field guerrilla armies.

The South Lebanese Army, fearing for their families' safety, promptly fled the outposts that the Israeli soldiers had turned over to them only last week in preparation for withdrawal. In some cases, the militiamen left behind weapons and other equipment.

The militia's flight prodded more villagers to return home, and by Monday afternoon the roads into South Lebanon were clogged with cars flying the Lebanese and Hezbollah flags. People danced in the road with joy.

The celebrations had a domino effect, and by Monday evening as many as 14 villages and four militia outposts had been overrun, leaving the Israelis with almost no presence in the central sector of their self-styled "security zone."

"This is a great day, and I can't express my happiness," said Qassem Rammal, who was returning with his wife to their hometown of Adaisseh, less than a mile from Israel.

Although the first villagers were unarmed, eventually Hezbollah fighters also made their way through the U.N. checkpoints and set about dismantling the abandoned outposts and hoisting their flags over them.

"We are regaining our occupied land by force after the entire world did not bring it to us," said Nabil Kaouk, southern commander of the Hezbollah militia.

The Israeli army formally complained to the United Nations, saying the "extremely" serious breach at the checkpoints contributed to the "deterioration" in the central sector.

The Israelis also fired shells onto the roads from the air, sea and behind the border fences, hoping to deter the villagers from advancing. It did little good, and Lebanese officials said five civilians were killed and 18 wounded. They said the deaths were caused by shrapnel from Israeli tank shells. The Israelis said the deaths apparently were a result of shelling by militiamen still at their posts.

As the outposts were falling Monday, a number of SLA officers and their families either rushed to the Israeli border to request asylum or surrendered to Hezbollah or the Lebanese army. Many of them were allowed to enter Israel, where the army said it was setting up a reception camp.

The fate of others was more precarious: TV footage showed some militiamen being led into makeshift jail cells by men wearing black capes with the insignia of Hezbollah on the back.

The fighters could be tried in Lebanese courts for treason and receive the death penalty. But the Lebanese government has shown some leniency to militiamen after previous Israeli redeployments and indicated Monday that it might be inclined to do the same this time.