Syria plans Lebanon pullback, envoy says

Amid growing pressure, Damascus to move soon, Arab League chief says

February 22, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Mounting pressure on Syria to ease its grip on neighboring Lebanon produced a pledge yesterday from Damascus that Syria will soon take unspecified steps to withdraw its troops.

The statement by visiting Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa of Egypt came as President Bush told European leaders that Syria must end its three-decade "occupation" of Lebanon and more than 100,000 Lebanese demonstrators rallied in central Beirut, shouting, "Syria, out!"

"From the littlest baby to the oldest man, we want our country back," said Maurice Baz, 84, a retired lawyer. Baz said that the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a bombing last week produced an outpouring of Lebanese opposition to the presence of Syrian troops.

After meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Moussa said that Syria would pull back its forces in accordance with the Taif Agreement, the 1989 treaty that ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

The treaty called for Syria - which entered Lebanon in 1975 as a stabilizing force - to shift its troops to the Bekaa Valley and eventually withdraw completely.

Syria has redeployed its forces in Lebanon several times since 2000, leaving the capital and Mediterranean coast, but still maintains 14,000 troops in the country. Skeptical Lebanese say Syria will never leave without being forced out.

Moussa offered a different perspective.

"There will be talk and steps that we will see soon," he said, without elaborating.

Assad's office had no immediate comment. Syria's official news agency, SANA, said the Moussa-Assad dialogue dealt with "ongoing developments in the Arab arena" but made no mention of a pullout.

Anti-Syrian sentiment reached a pinnacle with the assassination of Hariri in a bombing Feb. 14 that killed 15 others.

In October, Hariri resigned from the pro-Syrian Lebanese government and joined opposition calls for Lebanon's independence.

That made him a target, say opposition leaders, who accuse Syrian agents of being behind the attack that ripped through his motorcade.

Syria has denied any involvement in the killing.

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