Syria to move troops to east Lebanon

Syrian soldiers have loaded equipment and furniture into trucks and driven east from Lebanese mountain positions they have held for decades, the first signs of a redeployment announced earlier in the day by the leaders of the neighbouring countries.

    Syrian soldiers in a bread truck leave their position in Midairy

    Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahud, met in Damascus to outline plans for a withdrawal of the Syrian military.

    While announcing that the troops would redeploy to the eastern Bekaa Valley closer to the Syrian border by the end of March, they were vague on the timing of a complete withdrawal from Lebanon.

    The proposed troop movement was quickly rejected by the United States as insufficient, and the absence of a timeline was unlikely to satisfy the Lebanese opposition and the international community, which have demanded a full withdrawal of Syria's 14,000 troops.

    Withdrawal demanded

    Foreign nations - particularly the United States, France, Russia and the United Nations - have firmly demanded that Syria withdraw its troops and cease its political influence on its smaller neighbour. 

    Syrian President Bashar al-Asad
    met his Lebanese counterpart

    The United States has called for a complete withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents from Lebanon before parliamentary elections expected in April and May.

    "We stand with the Lebanese people, and the Lebanese people, I think, are speaking very clearly," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who called the Damascus agreement a "half measure".

    "They want a future that is sovereign, independent and free from outside influence and intimidation," McClellan said.

    Initial redeployment

    Al-Asad and Lahud said Syrian troops will first pull back from northern and central Lebanon to the east, near Syria's border. Then, military officials from both countries have a month to decide how many Syrian troops will remain in the Bekaa Valley and how long they will stay there.

    After a negotiated timeframe, the two governments will "agree to complete the withdrawal of the remaining forces," the announcement said.

    A Syrian soldier leaves his position
    in Midairy on Monday

    Although it did not set a timetable for complete withdrawal, it stated: "The Syrians and Lebanese agree on continuing the withdrawal of Syrian Arab forces."

    In Washington, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustafa, told CNN that Syria would withdraw all its troops from Lebanon within a few months. The withdrawal would be done in two stages, he said.

    "We entered Lebanon to end a bloody civil war," Mustafa said. "Now we are withdrawing in compliance with international law. We are giving a good example to the rest of the Middle East."

    Israeli withdrawal

    The presidents' statement said they respected all UN Security Council resolutions "including Resolution 1559, that should be implemented without double standard," an apparent reference to UN resolutions calling Israel to withdraw from Palestinian and Syrian lands occupied since 1967.

    Resolution 1559, drafted last September by the United States and France, called on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, stop influencing politics in the country and allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections as scheduled.

    In the hours after the presidents met, a scattered movement of Syrian army vehicles began.

    Up to 15 Syrian army trucks - carrying equipment, ammunition, weapons, mattresses, personal belongings, one towing a bulldozer, another towing a generator - were seen driving up the snaking highway through the central mountains headed towards the Bekaa Valley.

    Crews repaired two trucks that broke down on the side of the road.

    A jeep carrying a general climbed the road towards the Dhar al-Baidar mountain pass. Five trucks apparently carrying equipment covered by sheets crossed into Syria at sundown at the border point of Masna, under a light rain. Another 12 empty trucks were seen coming into Lebanon from Syria, apparently to pick up soldiers and equipment.

    Three tanks at Dhar al-Baidar moved out of one position and took up other positions nearby.

    Troops also were set to leave northern Lebanon, but there was no sign of movement in that region Monday.

    Syria has had troops in Lebanon since 1976, when they were sent as peacekeepers during that country's 1975-1990 civil war. When the war ended, the troops remained and Syria has dominated Lebanon's politics since.

    SOURCE: Unspecified


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