A dangerous situation is emerging in south Lebanon as the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) disintegrates and abandons military positions recently vacated by the Israeli army.

The civilian population in Lebanon must be protected as the withdrawal speeds up," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The Lebanese government has a responsibility to safeguard these people. And the Israeli military must refrain from indiscriminate attacks on unarmed residents who are returning to their villages in the zone."
Human Rights Watch received information from Lebanon that at least four civilians were killed in two separate attacks today. The victims were identified as Hussein Ali Karnib and Ali Abdullah Jassal, who were killed while walking on a road with some 100 other civilians to the village of Rachaf, southwest of Tebnine. In an earlier attack, Ibrahim al-Marouneh and another man (identified as Abdel Karim Abbas or Abbas Abdel Karim Abbas) were killed as they were driving toward the village of Meis al-Jebal, which is near the Israel-Lebanon border. It was not immediately clear whether Israeli or SLA forces were behind the attacks.

Israel's announced withdrawal, which was originally scheduled to be completed by July 7, has reportedly been advanced to early June. "The early withdrawal creates a dangerous situation, with potentially dire consequences for civilians on all sides," said Megally. He called on Hizballah to refrain from revenge attacks on civilians in northern Israel.

As growing numbers of militia from the South Lebanon Army are deserting, Human Rights Watch also called on the Lebanese government to publicly announce clear procedures for those who surrender. Megally noted that former combatants who lay down their arms are protected under international humanitarian law.

Lebanese lawyers reported to Human Rights Watch last week that the intelligence branch of the Lebanese army has interrogated former SLA combatants in incommunicado detention, sometimes for weeks, before lawyers were allowed to meet with them. "Former members of the SLA have the right of access to defense lawyers," said Megally. "In no case should former combatants be subjected to reprisals and summary justice." Former soldiers who live in villages that are now coming under the control of Hizballah are in danger of such reprisals.

It was reported today that some SLA militia have fled to the Lebanon-Israel border, requesting political asylum in Israel for themselves and their families. Israel should consider all asylum applications from SLA militia and their families on a case-by-case basis, Megally said. Those with a well-founded fear of persecution in Lebanon should be provided with refugee protection in Israel, unless they are known, or suspected, to have committed a war crime or a crime against humanity, in which case, they should be excluded from international refugee protection and tried and prosecuted in accordance with international standards. Under no circumstances should Israel return anyone to Lebanon who could face persecution and serious threats to life and freedom. This would be a violation of Israel's obligations under international law.

Human Rights Watch also strongly urged that some 144 Lebanese detainees in the zone's notorious Khiam prison, which is a joint enterprise of Israel and the SLA, should not be used as hostages. "These detainees' lives may be at risk in the chaos of an accelerated withdrawal," said Megally. "There must be strenuous efforts at the international level to guarantee their safety and secure their immediate release."