UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations (search) is returning a team to Lebanon to investigate U.S. claims that Syrian intelligence agents are still operating in the country in violation of a Security Council resolution.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan welcomed the decision Friday and urged the team to stay in Lebanon (search) through elections and formation of a new Cabinet "to better clarify reports of Syria's continued intelligence presence and to deter any further efforts to derail that democratic process that is under way."
In Damascus, Syria's (search) information minister denied that his country still had agents in Lebanon, calling such claims "non-objective and untrue."
"All Syrian troops, of all their different divisions, have withdrawn from Lebanon," Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah told the official SANA news agency.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan told members of the Security Council at their monthly lunch "that he intends to send a verification team back to Lebanon, but at this point no date has been set," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad called U.S. accusations "a smear campaign" and insisted all Syrian intelligence operatives have been withdrawn from the country as of April 26.
A U.N. military team sent to verify the pullout reported on May 23 that all of Syria's military forces were gone but said it couldn't "conclude with certainty that all the intelligence apparatus has been withdrawn" because "intelligence activities are by nature often clandestine."
In comments clearly aimed at the Bush administration, Mekdad said in an interview with The Associated Press that "certain circles" want "to kill" the May 23 report, which he said "confirmed that Syria has fully withdrawn its troops, intelligence and assets."
When pressed about the team's refusal to confirm the pullout of intelligence operatives because of the clandestine nature of their activities, Mekdad said: "I think what the report said on the nature of these operations is correct."
The anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon insists Syrian intelligence agents are still in the country, and the issue escalated after last week's car bombing in Beirut that killed prominent Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, who had long advocated Syria's withdrawal.
On Thursday, Lebanese opposition politician Walid Jumblatt expressed fears of further assassinations.
McClellan said Washington had been hearing reports "for some time about Syrian hit lists, targeting key Lebanese public figures of various political and religious persuasion, for assassination."
The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution in September demanding the withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence assets. But it was the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which set off huge anti-Syrian protests, that spurred the Syrians to leave.
The opposition has blamed Damascus and its Lebanese supporters for killing Hariri as well as Kassir. Syria vehemently denies the allegations.
Mekdad said the anti-Syria campaign by the United States reflects U.S. displeasure at the results of recent elections in Lebanon and is an attempt "to deepen differences between different Lebanese forces, and to create problems for a constructive relationship between Syria and Lebanon."
The militant Hezbollah group and its Shiite Amal ally — which have close ties to Syria — won all 23 seats in parliamentary elections in south Lebanon earlier this week. The United States, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, expressed concern over the party's success, saying an armed militia should not have a role in a democratic system.