Syria has withdrawn nearly a third of its 14,000 troops from Lebanon, a senior Lebanese army officer said Sunday, while a Syrian Cabinet minister said all the troops would be gone before Lebanese parliamentary elections slated to begin next month.
Since Tuesday some 4,000 Syrian soldiers have crossed into Syria, the Lebanese official said on condition of anonymity, and the 10,000 troops still in the country have mainly pulled back to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, near the Syrian border. However, 1,000 intelligence officers remain in the country, mainly the north around Tripoli and Akkar and on the southern edge of Beirut.
President Bush has demanded that all Syrian troops be gone by the elections. The Cabinet minister, Bouthaina Shaaban, told CNN: “The elections will take place and I think the troops will move out of Lebanon probably before then.”
In a flurry of diplomatic activity a day after meeting Syrian President Bashar Assad, U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen held back-to-back sessions Sunday with top Lebanese officials. He was sent to the region to pressure Damascus to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which demands an end to Syrian involvement in its tiny neighbor after nearly three decades. The document was drafted by the United States and France and adopted in September.
In southern Lebanon, meanwhile, at least 100,000 pro-Syrian demonstrators turned out in the market town of Nabatiyeh, where protesters burned Israeli flags and waved posters of Assad, his late father, President Hafez Assad, and pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. It was the second big protest organized by the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah in a week.
The demonstrators — some estimates put their number as high as 300,000 — shouted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” and slogans denouncing the U.N. resolution, under which Syrian is now removing its forces.
Syria’s official news agency claimed hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Syrians rallied in the northwestern city of Lattakia in support of Assad. There was no way to independently verify the crowd’s size.
In south Beirut, thousands of anti-Syrian protesters conducted a candlelight demonstration, arranging themselves so the flames would spell out “truth.”
The Lebanese officer said the removal of the remaining 10,000 Syrian forces would be the subject of discussions at a Lebanese-Syrian military commission meeting scheduled for April 7. Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud concurred that the next moves would be decided by the commission, although he would not give a date for the meeting.
After his meetings with Lebanese officials, Roed-Larsen said he was “very encouraged by (Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt’s) attitude,” adding that “dialogue is the only way forward.”
Roed-Larsen said he and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri focused on the “necessity of having free and fair elections in Lebanon according to the established time and schedule.”
The U.N. envoy said after his Saturday session with Assad that he had extracted further details of a pullout timetable and would present that information at U.N. headquarters in New York later this week.
In a statement, Lahoud’s office said he told the U.N. envoy that the Lebanese and Syrian leaderships had agreed to a series of military measures to secure a Syrian troop withdrawal in line with the Arab-brokered 1989 Taif agreement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.
“The first stage of the Syrian troop withdrawal to the Bekaa region will be finalized soon,” Lahoud said. “A date will be set for a full and final Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon by both countries’ governments and military leaderships.”
Opposition members met a delegation of European socialist parties at Jumblatt’s home to relay European demands for a free Lebanon and complete Syrian troop withdrawal before parliamentary elections.
Despite the troop pullouts, Jumblatt said “Anjar still governs,” a reference to the Syrian intelligence headquarters in the eastern Lebanese town of Anjar.
Syria has been the main power broker in Lebanon since sending troops in 1976 to help quell what was then a year-old civil war. The troops, at times numbering more than 35,000, remained after the war ended.
Renewed pressure on Syria to remove its troops gathered strength when Lebanese presidential elections were upended by Parliament’s renewal of Lahoud’s six-year term in September. The move was believed taken under Syrian pressure to change the constitution, which banned the incumbent from a new term.
At that point, the United Nations passed Resolution 1559, which also included a call for Lebanon to be allowed to hold presidential elections as scheduled. On March 4, President Bush demanded Syrian forces and agents leave before Lebanon’s parliamentary elections.
The Lebanese opposition also was emboldened by the international outcry after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who opposed Syria’s presence. Many accuse the Syrian and Lebanese governments of involvement in the bomb attack that also killed 17 others. Both governments reject the charges.
The U.N. Security Council is to receive a report from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan next month that outlines Roed-Larsen’s assessment of Syria’s implementation of its September resolution. The council will then consider what steps to take next, including possible sanctions if Syria is found in noncompliance.