The Lebanese army will begin moving 15,000 troops south of the Litani River on Thursday in line with a UN resolution to end the fighting, a senior Lebanese political source said on Wednesday.

"As we speak, the army is readying the force," the source said, adding that Lebanese units would stay out of areas occupied by Israeli troops until UN peacekeepers move in.

In New York, the UN has pressed ahead with plans to send troops from France, Turkey, Malaysia and Germany to southern Lebanon.

Hedi Annabi, an assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, told reporters on Tuesday: "It is our hope that there can be a deployment of up to 3,500 troops within 10 days to two weeks.

"That would be ideal to help consolidate the cessation of hostilities and start the process of withdrawal and of deployment of the Lebanese forces as foreseen in the resolution."

Rules of engagement
   
While several European Union nations have expressed interest in contributing troops, they are waiting to see what France - which is expected to provide the backbone of the contingent - will do before making any firm commitments.

On Wednesday Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French foreign minister, met his Lebanese counterpart, Fawzi Sallukh, in Beirut to plan France's role in the UN mission.

"France is ready to participate in a strengthened Unifil [UN  Interim Force in Lebanon], but the Lebanese army should deploy in southern Lebanon first," he said after the meeting.

"France considers that it is indispensable that many other  countries participate in this strengthened Unifil ," he said.

In addition to the Europeans, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia are potential troop contributors.
   
"The French would like to know what others are prepared to do and the others would like to know what the French are prepared to do," a UN official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the talks.
    
About 40 nations interested in contributing soldiers to the new UN force are meeting on Thursday to hear the rules of engagement.

Israeli officials said that the Israeli army plans to withdraw from southern Lebanon in seven to 10 days and to hand over some of its forward positions to UN troops within 48 hours.

However on Wednesday Dan Halutz, chief of staff of Israel's army, reportedly said Israel would stay in the border zone until an international force deployed, "even if it takes months". 

The mission
      
The first step for UN troops is to consolidate the current shaky truce and help set up the phased withdrawal of Israeli troops as the Lebanese army deploys some of its 15,000 soldiers, with the support of the 2,000-member Unifil.
   
A UN official said that the next step is to try to create a demilitarised zone between the Israeli border and the Litani river, some 20km north, after the Lebanese government deploys its troops in the south.
   
Once the Lebanese army controls most of the south, the aim is to implement a resolution passed in September 2004, which calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah.

This is to be done by the Lebanese army, assisted by UN troops. But Elias al-Murr, the defence minister of Lebanon, said the army would not disarm Hezbollah.