JEDEIDET YABOUS, Syria – President Bashar Assad (search) reiterated his commitment to withdrawing all Syrian troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon, a U.N. envoy said Saturday, indicating that he had received a timetable for the pullout. Meanwhile, a convoy of Syrian troops returned home to a rousing welcome.
The long convoy of vehicles carrying Syrian soldiers returned home amid a heavy snowfall early Saturday to the cheers of Syrian well-wishers, who chanted "Syria! Syria!" handed out flowers and threw rice.
U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen (search) did not give any details about timing after meeting with Assad in the northern city of Aleppo but said he would discuss the matter at the United Nations next week.
"I will present U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (search) with further details of the timetable for a complete Syrian pullout from Lebanon upon arrival in New York early next week," Roed-Larsen said in a statement read to The Associated Press by spokesman Najib Friji.
Chants of "Syria we love you" erupted from a crowd of about 300 men, women and children as 62 military trucks hauling supplies, eight buses loaded with soldiers and jeeps carrying officers crossed into Syria. The convoy also included a battle tank on a flatbed truck.
The civilians, sheltering in the cold under the roof of a Syrian customs drivethrough point, 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 Assad.
A Syrian officer at the border, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about 1,000 soldiers made the crossing.
Roed-Larsen arrived in Syria from Lebanon earlier Saturday and held a meeting with Assad that was attended by Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and his deputy Walid al-Moualem, the Syrian Arab News Agency.
The envoy said the meeting was "very constructive" and he was "much encouraged by President Assad's commitment to the full implementation" of the U.N. Security Council (search) resolution calling for Syria's immediate withdrawal from Lebanon.
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.
Larsen said the redeployment to the Bekaa Valley before the end of this month will include the withdrawal of "a significant number of these Syrian troops, including intelligence," from Lebanon into Syria.
"The second stage will lead to a complete and full withdrawal of all Syrian military personnel and the intelligence apparatus," the U.N. envoy said, adding that he will continue his dialogue with Assad and other concerned parties.
Syrian troops remained at only a few army bases and outposts 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, at least for now.
Jedeidet Yabous, about 30 miles from Damascus and about 60 miles east of Beirut, is the main crossing point on the highway linking the two capitals.
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's, who had lashed out at the Lebanese anti-Syrian opposition for being ungrateful for Syria's military presence in Lebanon.
"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 that 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 in northern Lebanon in the 1980s. "Those days, leaders of the opposition used to come to Syria daily."
The enthusiastic 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 that also killed 17 others. Both governments vehemently denied the charge and condemned the killing of Lebanon's most prominent politician.