- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

BEIRUT — Syria has withdrawn nearly a third of its 14,000 troops from Lebanon, and the remainder are expected to be gone — as demanded by the Bush administration — before Lebanese parliamentary elections slated to begin next month, a senior Syrian official said yesterday.

The 10,000 troops still in the country mainly have pulled back to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, near the Syrian border. However, 1,000 intelligence officers remain in the country, mainly in the north around Tripoli and Akkar and on the southern edge of Beirut.

“The elections will take place, and I think the troops will move out of Lebanon probably before then,” Bouthaina Shaaban, a Syrian Cabinet minister, told CNN.

U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, who discussed the withdrawal with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday, held back-to-back sessions yesterday with top Lebanese officials.

He was sent to the region to press Damascus to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which demands an end to Syrian involvement in Lebanon. The document was drafted by the United States and France and adopted in September.

The accounting of Syrian troops shows 4,000 have returned to their home country and that 4,000 others have redeployed to the Bekaa Valley, where they joined 6,000 who already were stationed there, said a senior Lebanese army officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The officer said the removal of the remaining 10,000 Syrian forces would be the subject of discussions at a Lebanese-Syrian military commission meeting scheduled for April 7.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud agreed that the next moves would be decided by the commission, although he would not give a date for the meeting.

After his meetings with Lebanese officials, Mr. Larsen said he was “very encouraged by [Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt’s] attitude,” adding that “dialogue is the only way forward.”

Mr. Larsen said he and parliament Speaker Nabih Berri focused on the “necessity of having free and fair elections in Lebanon according to the established time and schedule.”

The U.N. envoy said after his Saturday session with Mr. Assad that he had extracted further details of a pullout timetable and would present that information at U.N. headquarters in New York later this week.

Mr. Lahoud said through a spokesman that the first stage of the Syrian troop withdrawal to the Bekaa region “will be finalized soon” and that “a date will be set for a full and final Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon by both countries’ governments and military leaderships.”

Syria has been the main power broker in Lebanon since sending troops in 1976 to help quell what was then a year-old civil war. The troops, at times numbering more than 35,000, remained after the war ended in 1990.

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