BEIRUT, Lebanon – Cheering Lebanese in a convoy of about 100 cars — some carrying banners reading "Finally!" — drove east Saturday toward the former Syrian intelligence headquarters to celebrate the complete withdrawal earlier this week of Syria's military forces.
Meanwhile, a U.N. team met the Lebanese army commander at the beginning of its mission to verify Syria's pullout after 29 years of military and political domination of its neighbor.
Hundreds of people waving Lebanese flags and pictures of exiled Christian leader Michel Aoun drove in a honking and cheering convoy from Beirut (search) to eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley (search) town of Anjar.
However, they were blocked a few miles from the town by Lebanese troops, who had taken over the area apparently to prevent a repeat of celebrations by residents and anti-Syrian activists. In evacuations of other sites, activists have quickly swept in with Lebanese flags and paint to erase Syrian military symbols.
The group had planned to hold a celebration in the former intelligence headquarters — once the nerve center through which Damascus controlled much of the country's affairs. The site was a stark symbol of Damascus' power — the place where it decided policy in Lebanon, including who ran for office, who became a Cabinet minister and who was arrested.
The group was largely made up of supporters of Aoun (search), a former army commander who waged a war on Syria in 1989 that ended with his exile in France, where he has been lobbying for a Syrian troop withdrawal since. He has set May 7 as the date for his return to Lebanon.
Meanwhile, a U.N. team sent to verify whether Syria had withdrawn all its troops and intelligence agents in line with a Security Council resolution began its mission with a meeting with Lebanese army commander Michel Suleiman.
The team, headed by Brig. Gen. Elhadji Mouhamadou Kandji (search) of Senegal, earlier met with Syrian officials in Damascus and received maps of the bases Syria has abandoned in Lebanon and an account of the pullout. The team is expected to visit locations that had been vacated. It was not clear when that process would begin or how long it would take.
Even before the team began its field work, residents of the Bekaa town of Deir el-Ashaer on the Lebanese-Syrian mountain border complained that Syrian troops continued to maintain a military base in the area. Eyewitnesses on Saturday reported seeing some 40 tents and 50 Syrian trucks and military vehicles at the base, a few hundred yards from the Syrian border inside Lebanon.
Residents said they have handed over official documents to the Lebanese army supporting their claim that the area was owned by Lebanese.
Suleiman also met with another U.N. team, an advance party preparing for the arrival in the next few weeks of international investigators looking into the Feb. 14 assassination of Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search). The killing in a massive bombing in Beirut sparked anti-Syrian protests and intensified international efforts that eventually forced the Syrian army to withdraw from Lebanon. The withdrawal was completed Tuesday.
The opposition has accused the former pro-Syrian government in Beirut and its Syrian backers of being behind the assassination, charges both governments have denied.