Armored Lebanese army units in heavy rain rolled into the Christian and Druse hinterland Wednesday to dismantle sectarian strongholds carved out by militiamen during 16 years of civil war.
About 5,000 soldiers backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled out of the capital at 7 a.m.Half the force drove north on the coastal highway and turned east up the hills controlled by Christian militia leader Samir Geagea.
The rest advanced south toward the Chouf mountains to dismantle Druse warlord Walid Jumblatt's enclave.
"It is a new dawn in Lebanon's history. Be ready to receive it," Geagea told his men in a statement broadcast by local radio stations.
A downpour slowed troops driving along the winding, slippery mountain roads. Along the coast, Christian and Druse militiamen abandoned sandbagged positions as the army steadily advanced.
The soldiers are to establish positions on the main roads and fan out over the next few weeks into the provinces that had been controlled by Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party and the Christian Lebanese Forces.
A Lebanese army captain, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the militiamen were "gradually" turning over their weapons as the army deployed.
The deployment restores government authority to one-fourth of Lebanon, or 1,000 square miles.
The army purged Beirut and its immediate surroundings of militias in December when it implemented the first phase of an Arab League-sponsored peace accord.
Jumblatt and Geagea were the main fighting forces in the civil war, but they both agreed to the peace accord reached in Taif, Saudi Arabia, in October 1989.
Geagea's militia assembled around 300 military vehicles and 16 helicopters along the coastal highway in Halat, north of Beirut, in preparation for turning them over to the Lebanese army.
Scores of Soviet-made T-55 tanks, howitzers and multiple rocket launchers were assembled in the Chouf for collection by some of the 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, who are helping Lebanon's army enforce the peace accord.