Tue, 08 Mar 2005

From: AFP

Syrian, Lebanon agree on troop pullback by March

Adnane Zaka, Agence France-Presse/Damascus

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese opposite number Emile Lahoud agreed on Monday that a widely-anticipated pullback of Syrian troops in Lebanon would take place by the end of March -- a move that falls well short of international demands.

Syria is under intense pressure to end its political and military grip on Lebanon three decades after Damascus first sent in troops shortly after the start of the country's devastating civil war.

At the summit in Damascus, the two leaders "decided on the redeployment of Syrian forces to the Bekaa ... before the end of March," a joint statement said after the meeting.

But the pullback is unlikely to satisfy calls by the international community, including some of Syria's closest allies, for an immediate and full withdrawal, with the United States insisting it would not accept "half-hearted" measures.

The Damascus summit was held as an estimated 150,000 Lebanese opposition supporters rallied in Beirut three weeks after the killing of ex-premier Rafik Hariri in a bomb blast that changed the political landscape in Lebanon.

Lebanese red-and-white flags and chants of "Syria Out" filled the central Martyrs' Square where demonstrations have been held almost daily since Hariri's murder, resulting in the resignation last week of the pro-Syrian government.

At present between 4,000 and 5,000 of Syria's remaining 14,000 troops in Lebanon are deployed outside the Bekaa.

"The pullback towards the eastern Bekaa Valley by Syrian units deployed on Mount Lebanon overlooking Beirut and northern Lebanon will not take place before Tuesday," a senior Lebanese army officer said on condition of anonymity.

Assad, facing pressure from the United States over Iraq and Damascus-based Palestinian militants as well as Lebanon, said in a rare speech to parliament in Damascus on Saturday that the troops would redeploy to the border.

"As an extension of measures already taken... we will withdraw our forces stationed in Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley and then to the border," he said.

He said the supreme council would "approve the withdrawal plan and then we will have fulfilled our obligations under the Taef accord and under (Security Council) Resolution 1559."

The troops entered Lebanon in 1976 to try to restore peace during that country's 15-year long civil war which finally ended in 1990 under the Saudi-sponsored Taef agreement.

This provided for a phased redeployment of the Syrian forces but set no timetable, leaving it to agreement between Beirut and Damascus.

In a series of redeployments since June 2001, Syrian troop numbers have fallen from a high of 40,000 to 14,000 now.

Assad's failure to give any timeframe for a full pullout prompted criticism from France and the United States, which co- sponsored Resolution 1559 in September.

White House director of communications Dan Bartlett said his undertakings so far were "half-hearted" and in "complete contradiction" with the UN text.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said Assad's pledge was important but warned that "we expect to see precise and concrete acts".

However, Syria's allies in Lebanon have cautioned against any precipitate pullout that might upset the fragile sectarian peace and called for a demonstration in the capital on Tuesday.

Late on Sunday, an opposition demonstrator was wounded in a drive-by shooting in central Beirut, while last week a supporter of the pro-Damascus government was killed just hours after it announced its was stepping down.

The leader of the Shiite radical movement Hezbollah said after a meeting of pro-Damascus factions on Sunday that they opposed an immediate withdrawal as Lebanon was still in a "state of war" with Israel.

"We have the right to reject the international resolution because it is a blatant interference in our internal affairs and all its clauses are free services to the Israeli enemy," said Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

In an interview with Time magazine released on Sunday, the Syrian president again denied involvement in the bomb blast that killed Hariri, insisting Damascus was the main loser from the attack.

Assad appealed to the West not to compare his government to the Iraqi regime overthrown by U.S.-led troops in April 2003. "Please send this message: I am not Saddam Hussein. I want to cooperate," he said.