Assad vows to remove troops from Lebanon, U.N. envoy says

Withdrawal would follow meeting of military officials

March 13, 2005|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon - A United Nations envoy said yesterday that Syrian President Bashar Assad had reiterated his promise to withdraw troops from Lebanon under the terms of a U.N. resolution sponsored by the United States and France.

After a meeting yesterday in Syria, special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Assad told him that the evacuation of soldiers and intelligence officers would occur after a discussion between Syrian and Lebanese military officials that is expected to take place by the first week of April.

But Roed-Larsen did not disclose a timetable, saying that he would first report details to the U.N. secretary-general this week.

"I will present the secretary-general, Kofi Annan, with further details of the timetable for a complete Syrian pullout upon my arrival in New York," Roed-Larsen said in a statement read by a U.N. spokesman.

The envoy met for more than an hour with Assad at the Syrian president's home in Aleppo, Syria. Roed-Larsen described the session as "very constructive," saying that Assad made clear his intention to leave Lebanon.

Syrian soldiers arrived in 1976 after the start of Lebanon's 15-year civil war. Under a 1989 agreement ending the war, the forces were to stay only temporarily as peacekeepers, but they have remained.

"I'm encouraged by President Assad's commitment to the full implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559," Roed-Larsen said, referring to the U.N. measure approved last year demanding a total Syrian withdrawal.

The resolution also calls for disarming Hezbollah, a widely popular Shiite Muslim party in Lebanon that is classified as a terrorist group by the United States. But U.S. officials have not made that provision a priority.

Roed-Larsen said Assad repeated his recent promise for a phased pullout under which Damascus would first redeploy troops from northern and central Lebanon east to the Bekaa Valley, closer to the Syrian border, by the end of March. In the second phase, the forces would leave Lebanon altogether.

Assad said "a significant number" of the Syrian forces would leave Lebanese soil during the first stage, Roed-Larsen said.

The U.N. Security Council is to get a report next month on Syria's compliance with the resolution and could later consider sanctions if Syria has not implemented the measure.

About two weeks ago, thousands of troops began redeploying for the Bekaa Valley, with many of them crossing back into Syria. Some intelligence officers remained behind.

Assad said a final withdrawal would come after the gathering of military officials from both countries that was set up last week during a meeting with Lebanese president Emile Lahoud.

Syria is also under pressure from opposition groups in Lebanon that have taken to the streets in calling upon Syria to withdraw its troops, which critics see as the most visible embodiment of Syrian command over Lebanon's political and economic life.

The opposition campaign surged after the assassination last month of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many critics of the government hold Syria and its Lebanese backers at least indirectly responsible for the death. Both governments have denied any role.

The protests prompted Lebanon's pro-Syrian prime minister, Omar Karami, to quit Feb. 28. But after a huge pro-Syria rally last week, Karami was reappointed to the job Thursday, angering the opposition.

Opposition leaders have listed a full Syrian pullout as one of several conditions that must be met before they would consider joining a unity government under Karami.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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