SIDON, Lebanon -- Israeli troops lowered their Star of David flags and pulled back 17 miles from their front lines along the Awali River Saturday, completing the first phase of their withdrawal from southern Lebanon two days early.
Beirut radio said three Lebanese suspected of collaborating with the Israelis were 'exterminated' in the Mediterranean port city of Sidon shortly after the Israelis left. There were no other reports of violence.
Thousands of Sidon residents -- free of Israeli troops for the first time since June 1982 -- lined the streets, cheering, throwing rice and putting roses in the rifle barrels of Lebanese troops who moved into the port city.
'I thought the Israelis would never get out of here. I thought they would do to us what they did to the Palestinians,' said a 29-year-old secretary in Sidon as she watched the Lebanese tanks roll in.
'The people of Sidon are out in the streets. Thousands are out on their balconies,' government-owned Beirut radio said. 'It's a day of rejoicing and celebration.'
'The last Israeli tank and 14 troop carriers turned on their engines and rumbled away at 11:10 a.m,' said Sidon legislator Nazih Bizri, who watched the pullout from the Awali. 'The Israelis went. They are gone from the Awali!'
A military source told reporters in Sidon that 'Israeli units lowered the Israeli flag, dismantled their tents, packed their gear into trucks and troop carriers' before heading south to new positions.
Lebanese units crossed the Awali within the hour and quickly took positions in Sidon and the surrounding area.
'I shed no tears. I did not plant any tree there. It is not mine. I have nothing to do there,' Israeli Maj. Gen. Ori Orr, head of northern command, said after the pullback, which was completed in eight hours.
The Israeli forces took up new positions along a line of dirt and barbed wire barriers beginning at the Litani River, 17 miles south of the Awali, and running east to the Bekaa Valley.
An Israeli army spokesman said the move -- the first step of Israel's three-phase withdrawal from Lebanon -- was completed two days ahead of schedule 'without mishap.'
In the second stage, troops will abandon positions facing Syrian forces in eastern Lebanon. The third phase -- to be completed by next fall -- will bring them to Israel's northern border, leaving a 6-mile wide strip patrolled by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army and token Israeli units.
Israeli aircraft dropped thousands of leaflets behind the departing army Saturday warning of retaliation if northern Israel comes under attack. Israel invaded Lebanon to expel Palestinian fighters threatening its northern border.
In Sidon -- a one-time Palestine Liberation Organization stronghold that was the scene of fierce house-to-house fighting in the first days of the 1982 Israeli invasion -- many people wept openly with relief and women danced in the streets to celebrate the Israeli withdrawal.
Families drove north across the Awali River bridge, returned, then crossed again for the sheer joy of doing it without interference for the first time since the June 9, 1982, when Israeli forces seized Sidon in an amphibious assault.