2,000 More Syrian Troops Leave Lebanon

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Syria has withdrawn 2,000 more troops from Lebanon, a military official said Monday, bringing Damascus' military presence in the country to the lowest level since it began three decades ago.

A Lebanese Foreign Ministry official, meanwhile, flew to New York to attend talks on the probable formation of a U.N. commission of inquiry into the death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search).

The government also responded to criticism of its inquiry into the Feb. 14 assassination by saying it had found parts of a white truck that was captured on a videotape exhibiting suspicious behavior.

The massive bombing that killed Hariri, which many in the opposition blamed on the Lebanese government and its Syrian powerbrokers, sparked mass protests by the Lebanese opposition calling for Syria to stop interfering in their country. Washington and the United Nations also stepped up demands that Damascus withdraw its forces in line with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 (search) passed in September.

Both governments denied responsibility in the attack, but Syria began pulling back its forces amid increasing international pressure.

The departure of 2,000 more Syrians brought the number of troops to 8,000, the lowest it has been since Syrian forces entered Lebanon in the second year of the 1975-90 civil war.

More Syrian forces were expected to leave this week. Syrian soldiers were seen dismantling eight positions near the eastern city of Baalbek on Monday.

In Chaat, 15 miles north of Baalbek, The Associated Press saw Syrian soldiers loading goods on to 10 trucks, each of which had an anti-aircraft gun in tow.

A Lebanese military official said the 2,000 Syrian soldiers had left the eastern Bekaa Valley and returned home during the past few days. The Lebanese-Syrian Military Commission (search) will meet next week to agree on the second phase of Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, the official said on condition of anonymity. The second phase was expected to see the complete removal of Syrian forces in Lebanon.

The United Nations and the United States have demanded a full withdrawal before elections, which are due to begin in April and go through May.

The foreign ministry's acting secretary-general, Butros Asaker, left Beirut on Monday for New York, where he will meet U.N. officials and attend a U.N. Security Council meeting that is expected to set up a commission of inquiry into the massive bomb attack that killed Hariri and 17 other people.

"He has instructions from the Lebanese government to inform officials at the United Nations that Lebanon accepts an international investigation," a Foreign Ministry official said. Lebanese civil servants usually only speak to the media when granted anonymity.

The official said the 15-nation Security Council was expected to discuss Hariri's killing this week.

Last week, Lebanon grudgingly accepted an international investigation into the assassination, reversing its position that such an inquiry would infringe on its sovereignty.

A U.N. fact-finding mission, which spent three weeks in Lebanon, has reported that Lebanese authorities bungled, if not outright manipulated, their own investigation of the killing.

On Sunday, the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya television broadcast a videotape recorded by an HSBC bank security camera in Beirut minutes before the blast. It showed a white pickup truck that the U.N. mission said might have played a role in the assassination. The tape showed the truck driving six times slower than other vehicles passing the scene of the explosion.

The U.N. mission's report criticized the Lebanese investigation, which had access to the tape, for failing to pursue the truck despite its suspicious behavior. The report said a member of the security forces had placed "parts of a truck" in the crater left by the explosion and photographed them, "seriously damaging the credibility" of the investigation.

The Interior Ministry issued a statement Monday saying 32 pieces of the white truck had been found at the scene, photographed and documented. Some pieces were found by the U.N. mission. The statement refused to give further details, citing the secrecy of the investigation.

Syrian soldiers were deployed to Lebanon during the civil war as a stabilizing force, but they remained afterward and Syria became the country's main powerbroker.

At the time of Hariri's assassination, about 14,000 Syrian troops were in Lebanon. About 4,000 soldiers left in the first phase of a withdrawal that was completed March 17.