U.N. Verifies Syrian Withdrawal

A U.N. military team on Monday verified the pullout of all Syrian troops from Lebanon (search) but said it cannot be certain that all intelligence operatives have left the country.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) and his special envoy on the Lebanon-Syria issue both called the results positive, but the team's report wasn't the clear-cut statement that Syria had sought.

The report said all the locations formerly used by Syria's (search) military intelligence apparatus were empty, and it concluded that "no Syrian military intelligence personnel remain in Lebanon in known locations or in military uniform."

"But the team has been unable to conclude with certainty that all the intelligence apparatus has been withdrawn," the report said, stressing that "intelligence activities are by nature often clandestine."

Annan said Monday there were also questions about one undemarcated border area, Deir Al Ashayr, where a Syrian battalion was still deployed. The U.N. team said the border is not marked and the battalion's status will be clarified once the two governments conclude a border agreement which will determine whether Deir Al Ashayr is part of Lebanon or Syria.

The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution in September 2004 calling on Syria to withdraw its troops and intelligence operatives from Lebanon. But it was the Feb. 14 assassination of Lebanon's former anti-Syrian Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that spurred the Syrians to leave.

The assassination caused an uproar in Lebanon, sparking massive anti-Syrian street protests that forced the pro-Syrian Beirut government to resign. The Lebanese opposition claimed Syria orchestrated the killing and demanded Damascus end its interference in Lebanese politics and withdraw its thousands of troops from the country.

Syria denies any involvement in Hariri's assassination, and no one has yet been charged. The United Nations is sending an independent commission to investigate the killing.

Syria's last soldier in Lebanon walked across the border on April 26, ending a 29-year military presence that was the key to Damascus' control of Lebanon. Syria sent troops to its smaller neighbor in 1976 to help quell what was then a year-old civil war but the troops remained after the war ended in 1990.

The United Nations team began its verification activities on May 1 and spent 10 days visiting visiting 133 locations where Syrian troops and intelligence officials had been based.

The team said it encountered numerous earthworks and defenses formerly used by the Syrian forces, particularly in the Bekaa valley, and in some cases found underground bunkers and troop trenches. It recommended that Lebanese authorities dismantle any of these defenses "that are assessed to pose a risk to Lebanese civilians."

The team did not recommend a further verification mission.

Citing the "positive reports," Annan said, "lots of progress has been made and I think the U.N. should be proud about this."

"In the year 2000, we worked with the Lebanese and the Israelis to see to the withdrawal of Israeli troops, and today it is the Syrian troops that have been withdrawn and so in principles Lebanon should be free of all foreign forces today."