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Russia, Germany demand Syria quit Lebanon
Updated: 2005-03-03 22:55

DAMASCUS - Russia and Germany joined an international chorus of demands for Syria to leave Lebanon, and President Bashar al-Assad was expected to travel to Saudi Arabia on Thursday for talks diplomats said would focus on a pullout.

"Syria should withdraw from Lebanon, but we all have to make sure that this withdrawal does not violate the very fragile balance which we still have in Lebanon, which is a very difficult country ethnically," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the BBC late on Wednesday.

Russia, Syria's main Cold War ally and still one of its best friends, abstained when the U.N. Security Council adopted U.S.- and French-sponsored Resolution 1559 in September calling for foreign forces to leave Lebanon and militias to disarm.

But Lavrov said the resolution, like any other Council measure, must be implemented -- a stance that further ratcheted up world pressure on Syria to withdraw its 14,000 troops.

Damascus has faced mounting calls to end its military and political dominance of Lebanon since the Feb. 14 assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister in a Beirut bomb blast.

Syria has denied any part in Rafik al-Hariri's killing and says Lebanon's state investigation will prove its innocence.

Syria intervened militarily in Lebanon's civil war in 1976 and has had troops there ever since, though their numbers have dropped since the Taif Accord that ended the 1975-90 conflict.

Assad was quoted by Time magazine on Tuesday as saying he could pull out the remaining troops within months, but the United States and Israel have expressed skepticism.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, visiting Yemen, also called on Syria to take its troops out immediately.

"Lebanon should be given an opportunity for sovereignty and development and this can only be achieved by compliance with Security Council resolutions that stipulate immediate Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon," Yemen's state news agency quoted him as saying at a meeting with his Yemeni counterpart on Wednesday.

Assad was due in Riyadh later in the day for talks with Saudi leaders keen to see Syrian troops leave in compliance with the Taif Accord and the U.N. resolution, Arab diplomats said.


"Syria is under intense pressure from all sides at the moment. Assad hopes to get backing from his ally Saudi Arabia at this difficult time," said Saudi commentator Mohammad al-Harfy.

Saudi Arabia, which hosted the 1989 Taif conference, was deeply shocked by the killing of Hariri, a Sunni Muslim tycoon who made his billions in the kingdom, was granted Saudi nationality and had strong links with the royal family.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, attending an Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Egypt, told reporters his country had "no initiative" to resolve the Syria-Lebanon crisis.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met Prince Saud in Sharm el-Sheikh and discussed "the Syrian vision on implementing U.N. Resolution 1559," Egypt's official news agency MENA reported.

Assad met Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani on Wednesday to discuss U.S.-led pressure on Damascus.

The Arab ministers were preparing for next month's Arab summit, which could provide a blessing for a Syrian withdrawal under the Taif Accord, which committed Syria to shifting its troops in Lebanon to the eastern Bekaa Valley within two years.

It also stipulated that Syria and Lebanon then agree a timetable for a full Syrian pullout. That has yet to happen.

Arab diplomats said Arab mediation efforts focused on securing Syria's consent to set such a schedule, but one said it was not clear whether Lebanon was in a position formally to request a pullout since it only has a caretaker administration.

Its Syrian-backed government collapsed on Monday amid opposition calls for a Syrian withdrawal, backed by Lebanese protesters who have flooded Beirut streets since Hariri's death.

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