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Syria to pull back troops in Lebanon
Updated: 2005-02-25 09:47

Syria said Thursday it will begin withdrawing its troops in Lebanon closer to its own border, a move designed to blunt international demands for a complete pullout and to ease a groundswell of anti-Syrian sentiment.

But a dissatisfied United States said the move was not enough and demanded a full withdrawal from the Mideast nation.

"This needs to happen immediately," US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said. A resolution by the U.N. Security Council "calls in clear, unequivocal terms for all foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon."

Both Syria and Lebanon's Damascus-allied government gave no timetable, indicating the troops would not leave Lebanon at this stage and that the withdrawal toward the border would be on their own terms.

The two countries don't want to be seen to be caving in to a U.N. Security Council resolution in September that effectively called on Syria to withdraw all its forces from Lebanon and to end its political interference.

While the redeployment promised Thursday falls well short of the U.N. demands, it was still a significant attempt to ease pressure that has been building since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut.

There was no sign Thursday night of any movement among Syria's 15,000 troops in Lebanon. At a Syrian intelligence post at Ramlet el-Baida, on the southern edge of Beirut, a gun-wielding plainclothes Syrian agent stood outside one office, while another paced back and forth. Along the Beirut-Damascus highway near the mountain town of Aley, Syrian soldiers collected their dinners from a truck.

"The decision to withdraw has been taken," Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad told the local New TV channel. "What remains is the exact timing."

A pullback could start as early as Saturday, said one senior Lebanese security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Murad said Lebanese and Syrian military officers were meeting to define "the dates and the way" of the withdrawal. He stressed it was in line with the Arab-brokered Taif accord of 1989, which provides for Syrian soldiers to be stationed in the eastern Bekaa Valley near the border.

Thursday's tough U.S. statement reflects both skepticism that Syria will comply and a downturn in relations with Syria, accelerated by Hariri's assassination.

But Syria's move will not sidetrack talks that a senior State Department official, David Satterfield, plans to hold in Lebanon early next week, the State Department spokesman, Casey, said.

Satterfield, a former U.S. ambassador to Beirut and now a deputy assistant secretary of state, will convey the U.S. demand for a full and immediate withdrawal.

He also will talk to Lebanese officials about the need for a thorough inquiry into last week's assassination of Hariri, department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday.

Lebanon has rejected an international inquiry but has expressed a willingness to cooperate with foreign investigators. A team dispatched by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to investigate the Hariri assassination arrived in Beirut Thursday.

Syria in the past has redeployed its troops in Lebanon in ways that seemed to indicate a pullout was in the works. But the troops remain in Lebanon.

Israel, Syria's arch foe, welcomed the announcement. Egypt said that Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa would be coming to Cairo at an unspecified date to discuss the issue. Egypt sent its intelligence chief to Damascus on Wednesday for talks on the matter..

The killing of Hariri, who was credited with rebuilding Lebanon after the 1975-90 civil war, provoked mass demonstrations against Syria. Lebanese opposition leaders accused the government and Syria of playing a role in the assassination — a charge strongly denied by both governments. The opposition has now pledged to bring down the government in a no-confidence motion in parliament on Monday.

Some opposition figures dismissed Thursday's withdrawal statement as vague. Samir Franjieh said the announcement did not refer to a complete pullout from Lebanon.

Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, a harsh critic of Syria's role in Lebanon, said "we demand a fixed timetable for a comprehensive withdrawal."

Syrian troops are currently based on the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean coast to the west and in the eastern Bekaa Valley. They also have positions along the north Lebanese coast around Tripoli, the country's second-largest city.

The bulk of the Syrian garrison, which once numbered 35,000, has been withdrawn from the coastal areas in redeployments since 2000.

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