Syria pulls out all but token force

Syria's pullout from Lebanon has neared completion as flatbed trucks transported Syrian tanks towards the border on Sunday.

    Syrian trucks loaded with tanks drive towards the Syrian border

    Syrian soldiers were seen loading ammunition and knocking down the walls of an old base in eastern Lebanon, effectively ending a 29-year military presence.

    Under pouring rain, a convoy of 200 armoured vehicles towing cannons and rocket launchers, T-52 and T72 tanks, military trucks and buses carrying more than 500 soldiers were seen heading to the Masnaa border point.

    Most of the last 1000 Syrian troops in Lebanon have withdrawn in the past few days. A senior Lebanese military officer said 300 would remain behind until Tuesday for a ceremony marking the formal end of Syria's military presence.

    "All Syrian troops will leave Lebanon by Tuesday," the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity, as is typical for military officials there.


    An Associated Press reporter in the city of Baalbak in the eastern Bekaa Valley said the accelerated Syrian troop withdrawal on Saturday night was delayed for a few hours by a heavy downpour, unusual for this time of year.

    At their last major garrison in Lebanon, the Bekaa town of Dir al-Ahmar, Syrian soldiers burned documents, dismantled military posts and loaded ammunition on to trucks.

    Syrian intelligence agents vacated their headquarters in Baalbak at noon on Sunday and later the Lebanese army moved in and took over the position. Lebanese soldiers hoisted the Lebanese flag at a vacated Syrian checkpoint in Dir al-Ahmar. A Lebanese bulldozer filled holes and trenches used by retreating Syrian soldiers in Baalbak.

    With the latest Syrian pullout, the Bekaa Valley has become almost entirely clear of Syrian troops and military intelligence, witnesses said. The exception is the border town of Anjar, home of Syria's chief of military intelligence in Lebanon, where Syrian officials appeared to be going about their business as usual on Sunday.

    Tuesday ceremony

    Syrian and Lebanese officials said on Sunday that Syria was withdrawing all but a token force that would remain in Lebanon for a farewell ceremony on Tuesday that the Lebanese army planned to hold in a town near the border.

    "Within the next few hours, all the troops will be out of Lebanon," a Syrian government official said in Damascus.

    "What will be left are those who will take part in the official farewell" on Tuesday, the official said.

    It was assumed Syrian intelligence and their chief would also withdraw by Tuesday.

    Peacekeeping role

    The Syrians entered Lebanon in 1976, ostensibly as peacekeepers in the year-old civil war. After the war ended in 1990, 40,000 Syrian troops remained in Lebanon, giving Damascus the decisive say in Lebanese politics.

    Syria began withdrawing from Lebanon last month after  international and Lebanese pressure in the wake of the 14 February assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

    Anti-Syrian opposition leaders accused Lebanon's pro-Syrian government and Syria of playing a role in the assassination, a charge both authorities denied.

    In September, when the number of Syrian troops in Lebanon stood at about 14,000, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling on Syria to withdraw all troops and intelligence operatives.

    UN demands

    The withdrawal will meet Syria's 30 April deadline for a full pullout, and should also fulfil UN and US demands.

    UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said last week he was delaying until Tuesday the release of a report to the Security Council on Syria in Lebanon so he could confirm the full withdrawal.

    The United States and Annan have been pushing for the Syrians to leave before Lebanon's parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for next month.

    Jumblatt meets with Khatami

    Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition, met Iranian President Muhammad Khatami, in Tehran, who cautioned that differences in Lebanon could lead to civil war.

    "The possibility exists of an escalation of the differences and its degeneration into a civil war," Khatami said, according to Iran's official news agency.

    Khatami, whose country maintains strong ties with Syria, also said: "Instability in Syria would be a catastrophe for the region, which would have malignant effects on Lebanon."

    The Iranian president reiterated Iran's support for Hizb Allah, a Lebanese group backed by Iran and Syria that led a guerrilla war against Israel's 18-year occupation in southern Lebanon. He called the Lebanese resistance "a source of pride for the Islamic and Arab world".

    Hizb Allah, which enjoys popular support in Lebanon, has come under increased pressure to disarm since Syria agreed to pull out its troops from the country.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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