BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syria, under growing international pressure to end its longtime military presence in Lebanon, began pulling back more than 1,000 of its 20,000 troops on Tuesday, a senior Lebanese military official said.
The military official, who declined to be named, said the redeployment involved troops in the Beirut (search) area who were being moved away from the capital to new positions within Lebanon. As such it did not qualify as a withdrawal, the official told The Associated Press.
Defense Minister Mahmoud Hammoud, emerging from a meeting of senior Lebanese and Syrian military officers in Beirut, said the redeployment indicates "the security situation in Lebanon is becoming more stabilized."
Earlier this month, a divided U.N. Security Council approved a U.S.-backed resolution demanding foreign forces leave Lebanon and that the country hold a presidential election.
Instead Lebanese lawmakers amended their constitution to keep pro-Syria President Emile Lahoud (search) in office, reaffirming their loyalty to Damascus.
By increasing their distance from the capital, the Syrians may be hoping to quiet increasingly vocal Lebanese and international opposition to their military presence here.
Ahmad Haj Ali, an adviser to Syria's information minister, said in a telephone interview that the redeployment was a "positive step" he expected to be looked on favorably by the Security Council, adding, "It is not negative even to say it came in order to better Syrian-American ties, which is something we are searching for."
But Syrian Information Minister Ahmad al-Hassan said Syria was not bowing to outside pressure.
"This [redeployment] is a separate action in the framework of the agreement between the two countries which decide what they have to do," al-Hassan said in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Lahoud also said the redeployment was a matter between Lebanon and Syria.
Speaking at a meeting with a Syrian military delegation headed by Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Hassan Turkmani, Lahoud praised "Syria's role in maintaining Lebanon's unity and territorial integrity and in the rebuilding of its institutions, including the army establishment," according to a statement from Lahoud's office.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) refused comment. A senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the move was a step — but only one — in the right direction, and that his government was waiting to see if other measures followed.
The redeployment came two weeks before U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (search) was to update the Security Council on the situation. It follows a a visit to the Syrian capital earlier this month by William J. Burns, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Near East.
Syria has linked calls for its troops to leave Lebanon to past U.N. resolutions demanding that Israel pull out of Arab lands.
Israel has held Syria's Golan Heights (search) since the 1967 Mideast war, and Syria wants the land returned in exchange for any peace deal.
Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation, but Lebanon and Syria say Israel still holds Lebanese land: the Chebaa Farms.
The United Nations says Chebaa Farms is Syrian territory and should be negotiated between Syria and Israel.
Syria sent troops to Lebanon in 1976 to help quell a sectarian civil war, then just a year old. The troops remained after the war ended in 1990, and Lebanon's government repeatedly has said their presence has been a stabilizing factor. Syria's influence, though, is as much political as security, and the troops cement its dominance.
The military official said Syrian soldiers began evacuating hilltop positions in the coastal towns of Aramoun, Chuweifat, Damour, Doha and Khaldeh, south of Beirut, in the first stage of a major redeployment.
The second phase will see Syrian troops withdrawing from eastern and northern areas as a prelude to redeploying in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa region or to the border, the official said.
The official expected the Syrian redeployment to be completed in a few days.
Syria once had some 35,000 troops in Lebanon. It began thinning its military presence in 2001, making four withdrawals from Beirut and central Lebanon, a stronghold of right-wing Christian opposition groups, and from northern Lebanon.
Christian opponents of the Lebanese government demand that Syria withdraw all its troops from Lebanon, saying the security situation has improved since Israel ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
However, the pro-Syrian government, with the support of the country's Muslim majority, says the Syrians are still needed until there is comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.