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Report: Syria to leave Lebanon by April 30

U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Sunday the Syrian government pledged to remove all Syrian troops and intelligence agents completely from Lebanon by April 30 at the latest.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Syria plans to pull all its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon by April 30, and a U.N. team could be dispatched to verify the withdrawal, a U.N. envoy said Sunday after meeting President Bashar Assad.

The full withdrawal will mark the end of Syria’s 29 year military presence in Lebanon and will comply with the demands in a U.N. resolution, helping to relieve the international pressure on Damascus.

U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa had informed him “all Syrian troops, military assets and the intelligence apparatus will have been withdrawn fully and completely” by April 30, at the latest.

Roed-Larsen said the Syrian commitment implies all its security forces will be withdrawn in line with the 1989 Taif agreement, which paved the way for the end of the Lebanese civil war, and U.N. resolution 1559 that was passed by the Security Council in September. The resolution called for Syria to withdraw its troops and stop interference in Lebanon.

“I agree with what Mr. Larsen said in his statement,” al-Sharaa said at a joint news conference. “By its full withdrawal from Lebanon, Syria would have implemented the part pertaining to it in the resolution 1559.”

‘Improve the climate’
Al-Sharaa said the latest development “will help improve the climate ... in the Middle East.”

In Lebanon, a member of the opposition, Wael Abu-Faour, praised the announcement as “very positive and we consider that it will lead to a new relationship and a new alliance with Syria.”

But another opposition member, Gibran Tueni, accused Damascus of continuing to meddle in Lebanese politics, particularly the current impasse over forming a government to hold the coming elections.

“Syria until this date is the one which decides. ... People in authority (in Lebanon) are fully under the control of the Syrian authorities,” said Tueni, who is editor-in-chief of the leading Lebanese newspaper, An-Nahar.

The United States had demanded a full Syrian withdrawal before parliamentary elections, which should be held before the May 31 expiration of the Lebanese legislature’s mandate.

State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said the U.S. was aware of the latest reports from Syria but had no reaction beyond reiterating the long-held position that there needs to be a full and immediate withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence forces according to a public timerable.

Al-Sharaa said Syria “supports the elections and their taking place on the date that all the Lebanese have agreed on.”

Al-Sharaa said even with Syria out of Lebanon, the security of the two countries will remain linked in that neither country could be used by an enemy of the other.

The fraternal relations between the two countries “cannot be annulled by the withdrawal of the forces or by incitement for the purpose of breaking Syria-Lebanese relations,” he said.

The U.N. envoy said Syria and the United Nations share a mutual understanding that the withdrawal “should proceed in a way that would best ensure the stability and unity of both Lebanon and Syria.”

Verification team
Roed-Larsen said that, with Lebanese government approval, the U.N. will send a verification team to monitor Syria’s full withdrawal, but he could not say when. He said the issue will top the agenda of his talks with Lebanese officials, which begin Monday.

Lebanese diplomats declined to predict how their government would respond Sunday, but it was unlikely that the pro-Syrian authorities in Beirut would reject a plan with Syrian and U.N. approval.

Syrian troops entered Lebanon, ostensibly as peacekeepers, in the second year of the 1975-90 civil war. They remained afterward, making Syria the undisputed power in that country. The pro-Syrian Beirut government and Lebanese supporters of Syria have long argued the country needs Syrian soldiers to maintain stability.

International pressure has increased on Syria to leave Lebanon since the Feb. 14 assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hariri’s assassination, which the Lebanese opposition blames on Syria and its allies in the Lebanese government, also sparked massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon. Both the Syrian and Lebanese governments have vehemently denied any involvement in the bombing.

At the time of Hariri’s murder, Syria had 14,000 troops in Lebanon. It began withdrawing them in March and about 8,000 remain in eastern Lebanon.