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Syria: Al-Assad Says Redeployment To Begin After Talks

Syria says talks on 7 March with senior Lebanese officials will allow them to set plans in motion for the redeployment of some 14,000 Syrian troops that are in Lebanon. The meeting in Damascus of the so-called Supreme Syrian-Lebanese Council will be headed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. Yesterday, al-Assad announced plans for a gradual redeployment of Syrian troops toward border areas with Lebanon. He did not specify any timetable for the redeployment -- or whether Syrian troops would leave Lebanese territory altogether.

Prague, 6 March 2005 -- Outgoing Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Mrad says the redeployment of Syrian troops toward Lebanon's eastern border will begin sometime after talks on 7 March between the presidents of the two countries.

In an interview with Reuters, Mrad specified that the first group of Syrian troops could start to move to Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley area as soon as 7 March. Mrad did not say how many troops might move at that time. But he did say that Syrian troops eventually will leave northern Lebanon and Mount Lebanon in accordance with the Taif Accord that ended Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
Special UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen will be sent to the region to press for a "full, complete, and immediate" Syrian withdrawal.

The announcement comes amid growing international pressure on Damascus to immediately comply with its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1559. That resolution calls for all foreign troops to leave Lebanese territory. In contrast, the 15-year-old Taif Accord specifies only that Syrian troops must move into the Bekaa Valley.

Yesterday, President al-Assad told Syria's Parliament that Damascus will redeploy all troops in Lebanon toward the Syrian border in a phased process. Al-Assad did not set a timetable for a full withdrawal from Lebanon, saying only that the redeployments would begin sometime after his talks with the Lebanese president.

"We will pull all our forces in Lebanon to the Bekaa [Valley] area [in the east of the country]," al-Assad said. "And from there, to the Syrian-Lebanese border. I agreed with Lebanon's President Emil Lahoud to hold a joint Lebanese-Syrian meeting next week to approve the plan for the withdrawal. At the end of this [redeployment] procedure, Syria would have fulfilled its commitment towards the Taif Accord and implemented [U.N. Security Council] Resolution 1559."

In Beirut, opposition leaders like former Lebanese President Amin Jamayel say they are disappointed by al-Assad's speech: "We were expecting at least a kind of timetable for the withdrawal -- a full withdrawal -- of the Syrian Army from Lebanon. What we heard, in fact, was 'a redeployment' and not full withdrawal. And we do not know what will happen when the Syrian Army is redeployed in the Bekaa Valley."

Jemayel explained that there is confusion in Beirut about whether Syrian troops will actually leave the country or will stay on the Lebanese side of the border: "We heard from President Assad saying 'the withdrawal to the border area -- the Syrian-Lebanese border area.' And not 'into Syrian territory.' So we are afraid that the Syrian Army will remain within the Lebanese borders, inside Lebanon, on the Lebanese territory."

Since al-Assad's speech, the United States and France have been repeating their insistence on a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon -- rather than a mere redeployment within the country.

In Washington, U.S. State Department Spokesman Adam Ereli said al-Assad's promises were "insufficient" and contained nothing new. Ereli said Washington wants to hear the words "immediate and full withdrawal" come from al-Assad's lips.

Those remarks echo a radio speech given by U.S. President George W. Bush earlier yesterday: "Today, America and Europe are standing together with the Lebanese people. The United States and France worked closely to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1559. This resolution demands that Lebanon's sovereignty be respected, that all foreign forces be withdrawn, and that free and fair elections be conducted without foreign influence. The world is now speaking with one voice to ensure that democracy and freedom are given a chance to flourish in Lebanon."

French reaction to al-Assad's speech was more restrained with the Foreign Ministry saying Paris expects a complete Syrian withdrawal as soon as possible.

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says special UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen will be dispatched to the region to press for a "full, complete, and immediate" Syrian withdrawal.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Gheit hailed al-Assad's promise as proof he intends to comply with the UN resolution. Abul Gheit said any Syrian withdrawal needs to be handled carefully to prevent what he called "any explosion of the situation."

Visiting Russian parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margilov also reportedly welcomed al-Assad's speech. Meanwhile, the Kremlin says Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt will be in Moscow for three days of talks starting on 9 March. Jumblatt leads the Progressive Socialist Party of Lebanon.

Qatar and Bahrain also are applauding al-Assad's move as a step toward withdrawal. But Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres has expressed disappointment, saying Assad's pledge is an "evasion and not a response" to the UN resolution.