Russia Keeping Eye On Syria in Lebanon

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Russia's foreign minister said Friday that Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon (search) should also include the pullout of intelligence agents.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow was closely watching the Syrian troop movements into Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley (search).

"We are examining the recent development of events," Lavrov said after talks with visiting Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt. "We proceed from the assumption that the withdrawal will also apply to representatives of the security services."

Jumblatt said the opposition wants a full withdrawal of all Syrian forces from Lebanon, "especially representatives of the security services."

Jumblatt, who opposes Syria's strong influence in Lebanon, was concluding a three-day visit to Russia -- a longtime Syrian ally -- to seek support amid a crisis in his country following the assassination last month of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search).

The U.N. Security Council has demanded that Syria withdraw its troops and cease all interference in politics in Lebanon, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for May.

U.S President George W. Bush (search) said Wednesday that Syria's withdrawal plans were a "half-measure" and that its intelligence services exercise a "heavy-handed" influence in Lebanon's government. He said the United States was consulting with allies about possible steps if Damascus refuses to remove all of its soldiers and intelligence forces from Lebanon.

Lavrov reiterated Russian caution about the speed of the pullout.

"The withdrawal must take place step-by step, in such a way as not to destabilize the very fragile situation in Lebanon, including in terms of interfaith relations," he said.

Both Lavrov and Jumblatt stressed that Lebanon's elections must be free from outside influence. Jumblatt said they must be held "without pressure from any intelligence services," a clear reference to Syria.

Lavrov stressed that Hezbollah has a right to take part.

"I think it's in the interest of Lebanon and all the Middle East for the political role of Hezbollah be taken into account that it would get the opportunity to represent its interest through elections," he said.

The Bush administration denied Thursday that it has softened its view of Hezbollah, a political and militia movement that the United States has long listed as a terrorist organization.

Lavrov stopped short of backing Jumblatt's calls for an international investigation into Hariri's assassination, saying only that Lebanese authorities must "cooperate to the full extent" with a mission he said the United Nations was sending to look into the killing.

Jumblatt, who spoke through an interpreter, said an international probe is needed so that the Lebanese people would be fully certain of the legitimacy" of the findings. "We don't trust ... Lebanon's judicial system."

Lebanon's opposition blames Hariri's killing last month on the Lebanese government and Syrian backers. The killing was the catalyst for anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon and the international uproar against Syria.