ALEY, Lebanon – Syrian soldiers stationed in the mountains overlooking Beirut and in northern regions went about their daily chores Friday, exercising, manning posts — and even doing laundry — one day after announcements that Syrian forces would begin to withdraw eastward to areas close to the Syrian border.
The Syrian decision to shift troops to the eastern Bekaa Valley (search) gave no timeframe and appeared to be designed to allay mounting calls for Syria to remove all its forces from its neighbor following the Feb. 14 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search) and 16 other people in a massive bombing in Beirut.
Meanwhile Friday, in Beirut, a U.N. team dispatched to investigate the murder of Hariri began its work by meeting Lebanese officials.
Team head Peter Fitzgerald, Ireland's deputy police commissioner, said in a statement that he will meet with Lebanese officials and "others who might assist us" in the mission, pledging "we will work with absolute impartiality and professionalism."
Lebanon has rejected the international inquiry that the United States, France and the Hariri family have demanded but it has expressed willingness to cooperate with foreign investigators.
Lebanese opposition leaders have accused the government and Syria of playing a role in the assassination — a charge both governments deny. The opposition has pledged to bring down the government in a no-confidence motion in parliament on Monday.
Thursday's withdrawal announcements from the Syrian and Lebanese governments indicated the Syrian troops would not leave Lebanon at this stage and made clear the withdrawal toward the Lebanese-Syrian border would be on their own terms.
Their statements referred to the 1989 Taif agreement (search) that provides for Syrian soldiers to be stationed in the eastern Bekaa, with a foothold on the high ground and the mountain passes in central Lebanon that overlook the Mediterranean and control the Beirut-Damascus highway.
On Thursday, Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad said Lebanese and Syrian military officers were meeting to define "the dates and the way" of the withdrawal.
A pullback could start as early as Saturday, said one senior Lebanese security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
There were no signs Friday of any movement among the 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon. In the hills above the mountain resort of Aley that overlooks the Mediterranean off the Beirut-Damascus highway, dozens of Special Forces soldiers exercised in an open field in the crisp morning sun.
Others manned sentries outside a position. Four trucks stood empty at the base, which is made up of several stone-face buildings.
"Don't talk to me about this subject. Go ask the command," said a Syrian lieutenant colonel when asked whether a withdrawal was imminent. Then he walked away. Asked whether a withdrawal will take place in the next two days, an off duty soldier replied: "No, no. We still have a month to go."
At a Syrian intelligence post at Ramlet el-Baida, on the southern edge of Beirut, the Lebanese capital, a gun-wielding plainclothes Syrian agent sat at the entrance to an office. In the Haikaliya suburb of the northern port of Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city, laundry hung outside a position.
Syrian troops, which first moved into Lebanon in 1976 amid civil war, are currently based in the central mountains, the northern regions and the eastern Bekaa, a border area of strategic importance for Syria because of its proximity to Damascus.
The bulk of the Syrian garrison, which once numbered 35,000, has been withdrawn from the coastal areas in redeployments since 2000. A withdrawal to the Bekaa should have taken place in the early 1990s under the Taif accord, and the latest announcement was met with skepticism.
Opposition leader Walid Jumblatt (search) welcomed the Syrian decision but demanded a fixed timetable for a comprehensive withdrawal.
Near the Syrian base outside Aley, about 10 miles east of Beirut, Lebanese paint shop owner Hael Maan had no faith in the Syrian withdrawal promises but nevertheless felt good.
"Even if I see them withdrawing, I wouldn't believe my eyes. Every time we hear that they are withdrawing but they never go. They are always here," said Maan, 52. "My feeling is the same as the feeling of every Lebanese citizen — we are tired [of the situation] and we want to live in stable conditions."