Syrians Cheer Returning Troops

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Amid a heavy snowfall, a long convoy of vehicles carrying Syrian soldiers returned home early Saturday to the cheers of Syrian wellwishers, who chanted "Syria! Syria!" handed out flowers and threw rice.

Chants of "With our blood with our soul we redeem you oh Bashar" and "Syria we love you" erupted from a crowd of about 300 men, women and children as 62 military trucks hauling hardware and supplies and jeeps carrying officers as well as eight buses loaded with soldiers crossed into Syria at Jedeidet Yabous (search). The convoy also included a a battle tank on a flatbed truck.

The civilians, sheltering in the cold under the roof of a Syrian customs drivethrough poin, also waved Syrian flags or blew whistles. A heavy snowfall delayed the crossing for several hours.

Some people handed flowers to the soldiers, others threw rice, rose petals and sweets at the vehicles in the traditional Arab welcome. A group sang nationalist songs to the beat of drums.

Soldiers responded by flashing victory signs. One climbed atop a vehicle to hold a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad (search).

The crowd erupted in chants of "Bashar and Lahoud we will erase this border," a reference to the two close allies, Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud (search).

A Syrian officer at the border, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about 1,000 soldiers were crossing the border point on Saturday.

Assad decided a week ago to call Syria's 14,000 troops home after relentless U.S.-led international pressure and anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon. By late Friday, almost all of Syria's troops in Lebanon had moved into the eastern Bekaa Valley — nearly three weeks ahead of a March 31 target date to complete the first phase of redeployment. Only a few army bases and outposts remained in the mountains northeast of Beirut. The troops in northern Lebanon left the country altogether, crossing into northern Syrian territory.

However, Syrian intelligence agents remained in place in the vacated areas for now.

Jedeidet Yabous, about 31 miles from Damascus and about 62 miles east of Beirut, is the main crossing point on the highway linking the two capitals that slices through Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

Syrian troops crossed into Lebanon in 1976 ostensibly as peacekeepers as the smaller Arab neighborhood was engulfed in civil war. The war continued for another 14 years and Syria was drawn into it. In 1990, when the war ended, Syria emerged as the main power broker.

Osama Jaroudi, 50, braved the storm and came with his wife and four children from Damascus to welcome the troops and show support especially after what he termed was the Lebanese opposition's "ingratitude." His view echoed that of Assad who had lashed out of the Lebanese anti-Syrian opposition for being ungrateful for Syria's military presence in Lebanon and waging a campaign to drive the Syrian army out.

"It appears this opposition has links abroad because what they have done was not natural," the 50-year-old Jaroudi said in reference to the street protests in Beirut which demanded Syrian troops leave the country.

"We defended Lebanon. Should this be met with ingratitude?" asked Issam Jaroudi, 40, who said he served in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, four years and three months in the 1980s. "Those days, leaders of the opposition used to come to Syria daily."

The rousing welcome for the troops on the border was in sharp contrast with their farewell in Lebanon, where troops withdrew quietly, sometimes during the night. The withdrawal was peaceful, despite the angry feelings on both sides. Pro-Syrian groups held a massive demonstration in Beirut on Tuesday to counter the weeks of anti-Syrian protests sparked by the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Many in the Lebanese opposition have blamed Syria and the pro-Syrian Lebanese government for the assassination of Hariri in a powerful bombing on a Beirut street which also killed 17 people. Both governments vehemently denied the charge and condemned the killing of Lebanon's most prominent politician.