Syria to Decide on Withdrawal in April

Syria (search) has withdrawn nearly a third of the troops it had in Lebanon (search), a senior officer said Sunday, but the Lebanese foreign minister said a date for a complete withdrawal would not be set until an April 7 meeting between the military leadership of the two countries.

The senior Syrian officer said about 4,000 soldiers had crossed the border into Syria since the pullout began on Tuesday and the remaining 10,000 were in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley (search).

"Another 4,000 soldiers in Lebanon's central mountains have redeployed to the Bekaa region. This is in addition to 6,000 troops already stationed in the Bekaa," the military official said on condition of anonymity.

He said the fate of the 10,000 troops remaining in the Bekaa would be discussed by the April 7 military commission.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud (search) also said the joint military commission would set the "duration, time and location in these matters." He made the remarks after meeting with U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in Beirut, a day after Roed-Larsen had visited Syrian President Bashar Assad.

President Bush (search), who repeatedly has called for a full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, wants Syria to move out before Lebanon's parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in April and May.

Asked if the final withdrawal could take place before the elections, Hammoud said it was up to the joint military commission to decide.

Roed-Larsen indicated he had extracted a timetable for full withdrawal from Assad during their meeting Saturday but would not reveal it until he meets with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York this week.

Assad, facing international pressure to withdraw, told his parliament on March 5 that Syria's 14,000 troops would be redeployed to Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, closer to the border, by March 31, but a complete withdrawal would be deferred until after later negotiations.

"The commission will present proposals to the Lebanese and Syrian governments about the status of Syrian forces redeployed in the Bekaa and define these forces' relationship with local authorities," the Syrian official told The Associated Press.

Syria also has about 1,000 intelligence agents in Lebanon, according to a Lebanese military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, but it wasn't clear if their fate would be part of the discussions.

Nine Syrian intelligence offices remain in northern Lebanon, including the towns of Tripoli, Akkar, Minye and Amyoun. Plainclothes intelligence agents operate from the guarded offices in apartment buildings and deal directly with Lebanese.

Syria has been the main power broker in Lebanon for nearly three decades since sending troops to its smaller neighbor in 1976 to help quell a year-old civil war. The troops, at times numbering more than 35,000, remained after the war ended in 1990.

The 1989 Arab-brokered Taif Accord, which was never implemented, called for Syria to move its troops to the Lebanese border and for both countries to then negotiate the withdrawal.

Pressure on Syria to remove its troops gathered strength when Lebanese presidential elections were upended by Parliament's renewal of Lebanon's pro-Syria President Emile Lahoud's six-year term in September. The move was believed taken under Syrian pressure to change the constitution, which banned the incumbent from a new term.

At that point, the United Nations passed Resolution 1559, drafted by the United States and France. It declared Syria must withdraw, stop influencing politics in the country and allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections as scheduled.

On Sunday, Roed-Larsen said his mission in both Lebanon and Syria was to ensure implementation of the U.N. resolution, which he said would be "in the best interest of all parties concerned and will take into consideration the necessity of political stability in Lebanon."

Roed-Larsen later met with Lahoud, who told the U.N. envoy that the Lebanese and Syrian leaderships have agreed on series of military measures to secure a Syrian troop withdrawal in line with the Taif agreement.

"The first stage of Syrian troop withdrawal to the Bekaa region will be finalized soon," Lahoud said in a statement. "A date will be set for a full and final Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon by both countries' governments and military leaderships."

On Saturday, Lahoud said Lebanon will not accept the resolution's demand that the Islamic militant Hezbollah group be disarmed. Washington labels the Syrian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but Lebanon considers it a legitimate resistance movement that led the guerrilla war against Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

The U.N. Security Council is to receive a report next month from Annan, based on Roed-Larsen's visit, on Syria's implementation of the resolution. It then will consider next steps, which could include sanctions on Syria.

Lebanon's opposition had long rejected Syria's role in their country, but the outcry intensified after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, seen as a powerful force moving into the opposition camp. Tens of thousands of Lebanese have protested in the streets.