Syria Begins Pullback in Lebanon

Published March 07, 2005

| Associated Press

Syrian soldiers loaded trucks with furniture and other supplies and drove east from the Lebanese mountain posts they have held for decades, the first signs of a redeployment to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley (search) announced Monday. But no deadline was set for their complete withdrawal, and Washington rejected the pullback as insufficient.

Lacking a timeline, the plan also was unlikely to satisfy the Lebanese opposition and the international community, which have demanded that all 14,000 Syrian soldiers leave the country.

More than 70,000 Lebanese shouting "Freedom! Sovereignty! Independence!" thronged Beirut in the biggest demonstration yet of anti-Syria anger that has fueled recent street protests. The demonstrators waved Lebanon's cedar-tree flag and thundered, "Syria out!"

"Yes, for withdrawal to the Bekaa, but, yes, first to the full withdrawal behind the Lebanese-Syrian border," opposition lawmaker Walid Eido told the protesters.

The demonstrators marched to the site of a Feb. 14 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search) and touched off the angry but peaceful street protests that drove Lebanon's pro-Syrian government to resign a week ago. Many Lebanese accuse the Syrian government and their former government of responsibility for Hariri's death; both deny any involvement.

Earlier Monday, Syrian President Bashar Assad (search) and his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahoud (search), met in Syria's capital, Damascus, to outline plans for shifting Syrian troops closer to the border by the end of March. But they were vague on the timing of a complete withdrawal from Lebanon.

Foes of the Syrian presence are calling for demonstrations to continue. One group raised a banner Monday reading read, "Today we have one target: To liberate our land."

But in a sign of the divisions in Lebanon, the militant Islamic group Hezbollah (search) urged a counterdemonstration Tuesday to show loyalty to Syria and denounce international interference.

Syria has had troops here since 1976, when they were sent as peacekeepers during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. When the war ended, the troops remained and Syria has dominated Lebanon's politics since.

The United States, France, Russia, Germany and the U.N. Security Council have firmly demanded that Syria withdraw all the troops and stop interfering in the affairs of its smaller neighbor. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder issued a joint statement Monday calling for a full pullout "as soon as possible."

President Bush telephoned Chirac on a flight to Pittsburgh and thanked him for the joint statement. "Both leaders are committed to a sovereign and independent Lebanon and they agreed to keep in close communications on the matter," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

Duffy said Bush also called Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah to "discuss regional issues and to thank him for his personal efforts to promote stability in Lebanon."

Washington wants a full withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents before Lebanese parliamentary elections expected in April and May.

"We stand with the Lebanese people, and the Lebanese people, I think, are speaking very clearly," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "They want a future that is sovereign, independent and free from outside influence and intimidation."

McClellan called the troop redeployment announced Monday "a half measure."

Assad and Lahoud said Syrian troops will first pull back from northern and central Lebanon to the east, near Syria's border. Then, military officers from both countries will have a month to decide how many Syrian troops should stay in the Bekaa Valley and how long.

After a negotiated time frame, the two governments will "agree to complete the withdrawal of the remaining forces," the announcement said.

In Washington, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, told CNN that Syria would withdraw all its troops within a few months.

"We entered Lebanon to end a bloody civil war," Moustapha said. "Now we are withdrawing in compliance with international law. We are giving a good example to the rest of the Middle East."

A U.N. Security Council resolution in September called on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, stop influencing politics here and allow Lebanon to hold a presidential election as scheduled.

The statement issued by Assad and Lahoud said they respected all U.N. resolutions, but added that all "should be implemented without double standard," an apparent reference to U.N. resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian and Syrian lands occupied since 1967.

In the hours after the Syrian and Lebanese leaders met, a scattered movement of Syrian army vehicles began in central Lebanon.

Up to 15 Syrian trucks — carrying equipment, ammunition, weapons, mattresses, personal belongings, one towing a bulldozer, another towing a generator — were seen driving up the snaking highway through the mountains toward the Bekaa Valley. Crews repaired two trucks that broke down on the side of the road.

A jeep carrying a general climbed the road toward the Dahr El-Baidar mountain pass. Five trucks apparently carrying equipment covered by sheets crossed into Syria at sundown at the border point of Masnaa. Twelve empty trucks entered from Syria, apparently to pick up soldiers and equipment.

Syrian troops in northern Lebanon showed no signs of any movement.

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