PARIS – France expects Syria to "fully withdraw" its troops and other personnel as soon as possible from Lebanon, the Foreign Ministry (search) said Saturday after the Syrian president announced a two-step process to pull back.
France also "expects the unreserved support" of Syrian and Lebanese officials for a U.N. probe of the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon (search), Rafik Hariri, the ministry said.
It expressed the wish that a government be quickly put in place in Lebanon and free elections held under the eye of international observers.
The statement was issued after Syrian President Bashar Assad (search) announced plans to move his country's 15,000 troops in Lebanon to the Lebanese-Syrian border in two phases. He said that plan should satisfy international demands for a complete pullout.
France and the United States sponsored a September U.N. resolution calling on Syria to withdraw its forces, stop influencing politics in the country and allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections as scheduled.
"We note the announcement by the president of the Syrian republic of his decision to apply" the resolution, the French Foreign Ministry said. "We, therefore, expect him to fully withdraw his troops and services from Lebanon as soon as possible."
The Syrian leader said his country's forces would first be withdrawn to the Bekaa region in the east then to "the Lebanese-Syrian border areas."
However, he set no timetable and it was not clear whether Assad meant he would keep some troops within Lebanon's border. Syrian Immigrant Affairs Minister Buthaina Shaaban said later that a withdrawal would be complete and will be "in the nearest possible time."
Assad made no mention of Syrian intelligence officers in Lebanon, the reference to "services" in the French statement.
France also stressed the need for Syria to give its "unreserved support" to a U.N. investigation of Hariri's assassination Feb. 14.
Hariri was slain in a massive bomb blast that also killed 17 other people. Many have pointed a finger at Syria for the attack.
Assad said finding the culprits "is a Syrian necessity just like it is a Lebanese necessity."
Paris concluded its statement by saying that it has "confidence in the capacity of the Lebanese people to unite and freely determine" their future.