Lebanon issue looms at Arab meeting

The issue of a Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon is not officially on the agenda of the meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo but is set to dominate the event as the international community turns up the pressure on Damascus.

    The meeting is a preparation for Algiers Arab summit

    The Arab League's biannual ordinary session on Thursday is chiefly aimed at

    preparing for a 22-23 March Arab summit in Algiers but comes during

    a period of immense political change in the Middle East.

    The post-electoral transition period in Iraq and

    Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts should also feature heavily in the

    discussions between the foreign ministers from the Cairo-based

    pan-Arab body's 22 members.

    Although Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa said on Wednesday

    that the Syrian-Lebanese crisis was not officially on the meeting's

    agenda, differences between Arab countries on the issue were

    expected to play out.

    Turning up the heat

    Washington has turned up the heat on the government of Syrian

    President Bashar al-Asad in the wake of the 14 February

    assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

    The pro-Syrian government in Beirut resigned on Monday and

    international calls have been growing on Damascus to pull out its

    troops from Lebanon.

    "The Syrian-Lebanese crisis will not be on the agenda of

    Thursday's meeting. But since everybody is talking about it, there

    will be discussions on the issue," Musa said. 

    Al-Asad: Troops will withdraw
    from Lebanon in a few months

    Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghait stressed

    that the United Nations should be involved in any withdrawal.

    "It is logical that since Resolution 1559 was initiated by the

    UN Security Council, its implementation should be carried out in

    cooperation with the UN, within the framework of Syrian-Lebanese

    relations," he said.

    "A mechanism is being discussed for the implementation of

    Resolution 1559 and on ways in which the UN could be involved," he said

    on Wednesday.

    "Egypt encourages Syria to solve the situation in Lebanon as

    quickly as possible," Abu al-Ghait added.

    The Security Council Resolution 1559, sponsored by France and

    the United States and passed last September, calls for the

    withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, although it does not

    mention Syria by name.

    Syrian withdrawal

    Lebanese diplomat Bassam Numani, representing his country at the

    Cairo meeting in the absence of outgoing Foreign Minister Mahmud

    Hammud, reaffirmed his support for the Taif Accords, an older

    agreement between the two countries providing for a phased partial

    withdrawal and offering no timetable.

    Lebanon is "keen to maintain good relations with Syria, as with

    all other Arab countries, and no power in the world can change

    this", he said on Wednesday upon arriving in Egypt.

    On Tuesday, Time magazine released excerpts from an interview

    with al-Asad in which he said his country

    would withdraw its troops from Lebanon in "the next few months".



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