The main Christian militia started withdrawing its heavy weapons from East Beirut on Saturday, removing the last major obstacle to President Elias Hrawi's demilitarization of the capital.
The move by the Lebanese Forces militia was "the first phase in a 48-hour total withdrawal from East Beirut," a spokesman for the militia said.
The pullout began five days after a Nov. 19 deadline set by Hrawi in his effort to create a militia-free zone in the so-called Greater Beirut area. The pullout is the first phase of an Arab League-brokered peace plan to end Lebanon's 15 1/2-year-old civil war.
Private militias have been blamed for most of the estimated 150,000 deaths during the fighting, and their forces had siphoned off taxes from a weakened and divided central government.
The major Muslim militias withdrew before the deadline. But the Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea, refused to leave until rival pro-Syrian Christians and other Syrian-backed forces returned the Lebanese Forces offices they had seized. Geagea also demanded guarantees that the pro-Syrian forces would not be allowed into East Beirut after the Lebanese Forces withdrew.
The pro-Syrian Christian forces are led by Geagea's bitter rival, Elie Hobeika. A Geagea spokesman, who declined to be identified, said the demands of the Lebanese Forces had been met, with the government ordering the anti-Hobeika 5th Brigade of the army to police most of East Beirut.
Militiamen of the 6,000-strong Lebanese Forces loaded mortars, machine guns, recoilless cannons and cases of ammunition onto 30 trucks near their headquarters in the seaside district of Karantina.
The convoy headed north along the coastal boulevard to Kesrouan province, which lies outside the "Greater Beirut" area.
The spokesman said the militia will evacuate about 400 fighters, 40 tanks and 50 armored personnel carriers from Beirut's Christian sector.
Government troops will move into metropolitan Beirut's Karantina, Nabaa and Ashrafiyeh districts, traditional Lebanese Forces strongholds, "as our pullout proceeds," the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.
When the operation is completed Monday, these districts "will be in the hands of the Lebanese army," he said.
The Greater Beirut zone will cover a 15-mile coastal stretch from the Dog River in the north to the Damour River in the south and extend east and northeast to encompass part of the Christian heartland that had been controlled by rebel Gen. Michel Aoun.
Aoun had defied Hrawi for 11 months until the president's Syrian allies crushed his mutiny last month.