- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria — President Bashar Assad moved the first troops from Lebanon across the Syrian border yesterday, and he promised to give the United Nations a timetable for a complete withdrawal of military forces and intelligence agents within days, a U.N. envoy said.

About 1,000 soldiers crossed the border into Syria — the first to come home since the latest redeployment began.

Mr. Assad has been under extraordinary pressure, led by the United States, France and an emboldened Lebanese opposition, to end his country’s nearly three-decade political and military hold on Lebanon.

U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen met with Mr. Assad yesterday in the northern city of Aleppo. Mr. Roed-Larsen said he was “much encouraged” by the Syrian leader’s reassurances and called the meeting “very constructive.” He refused to give other details.

“I will present U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan with further details of the timetable for a complete Syrian pullout from Lebanon upon arrival in New York early next week,” Mr. Roed-Larsen said. “The president has committed to withdraw all Syrian troops and intelligence from Lebanon.”

On March 5, Mr. Assad told his parliament that Syria’s 14,000 troops would be redeployed to Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley by March 31, but a complete troop withdrawal would be deferred until after later negotiations.

Two days later, Mr. Assad and Emile Lahoud, the pro-Syrian Lebanese president, issued a joint statement saying a full Syrian withdrawal would require further negotiations with a future Lebanese government. Parliamentary elections and the naming of a new government are slated for May.

Syria began pulling back some of its troops to the Bekaa on Tuesday.

Residents in the mountain towns of Aley and Bhamdoun east of Beirut said yesterday that all Syrian intelligence officers had left those areas and headed toward Hammana, high in the mountains, but still in central Lebanon. Agents also remained in Beirut.

Nine Syrian intelligence offices remained open in northern Lebanon, which Syrian troops left on Friday, including in the towns of Tripoli, Akkar, Minye and Amyoun. Plainclothes intelligence agents operate from guarded offices in apartment buildings and deal directly with Lebanese.

Pressure on Syria to remove its troops gathered strength when Lebanese presidential elections were upended by parliament’s renewal of Mr. Lahoud’s six-year term in September. The move was believed taken under Syrian pressure to change the constitution, which banned the incumbent from a new term.

At that point, the United Nations passed Resolution 1559, drafted by the United States and France. It declared Syria must withdraw, stop influencing politics in the country and allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections as scheduled.

On March 4, President Bush demanded Syrian forces and agents leave before Lebanon’s parliamentary elections in May.

Mr. Roed-Larsen, who is on the fourth leg of a Middle East tour that has already taken him to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, returns to Lebanon today.

Syria sent troops to its smaller neighbor 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.

In Lebanon yesterday, about 11,000 people from political opposition groups carried colored placards across the street from the tomb of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated on Feb. 14, in the central Martyrs Square to form a huge Lebanese red-white-and-green flag.

They chanted “freedom, truth, national unity.”

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