Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa met al-Asad and Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara on Monday, as tens of thousands of demonstrators thronged the seafront in Beirut to urge Damascus to recall its troops from Lebanon.

 

"During our meeting, President al-Asad expressed his firm desire, more than once, to continue implementing the Taif accord and to withdraw from Lebanon in keeping with this agreement," Musa said.

 

Syria is facing intense international pressure to end its political and military domination of Lebanon.

 

Lebanese opposition figures have suspected Syria of having a hand in the murder a week ago of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, but al-Asad's government has vehemently denied this.

 

Al-Hariri, a five-time prime minister and billionaire businessman who spearheaded Lebanon's post-war revival, was killed four months after he quit in a row over Syria's influence in his country.

 

Musa's comments came as US President George Bush again called on Damascus to leave Lebanon, where Syrian troops have been stationed for almost three decades.

 

"Syria must ... end its occupation of Lebanon," Bush said in a major speech at the start of a European tour.

 

Taif peace accord

 

Damascus first sent in troops a year after the outbreak of the civil war in 1975 and their numbers have been gradually reduced from a peak of 35,000 to 14,000.

 

Syria has denied any involvement
in al-Hariri's assassination

"Taif and the withdrawal are part of Syrian policy. Steps in these matters will be taken shortly," Musa added.

 

The 1989 Taif Accord, named after the Saudi Arabian mountain resort of the same name, called for Syria to start redeployments from Lebanon within two years of the end of the civil war.

 

Al-Asad believes "it is in everyone's interest that the inquiry[into the killing] is carried out as quickly and efficiently as possible so that the uproar dies down", the Arab League chief said.

 

He said Damascus supported the participation in the probe of a UN team which is expected in Beirut this week.

 

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said there was a "high level of suspicion" that Syria was involved in the killing and urged an independent investigation.