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Middle East: UN Envoy Sees Way Forward On Lebanon-Syria Dispute

13 March 2005 -- The UN's special envoy to the Middle East says he is optimistic about resolving the Syria-Lebanon crisis after carrying a full withdrawal pledge from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the government in Beirut.

UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen says he communicated al-Assad's promise during his talks today with the three top figures in Lebanon's Syrian-backed administration:

"The topic of our conversation has been the implementation of [UN] Security Council Resolution 1559. And we've discussed all aspects of it," Roed-Larsen said.

Larsen says he and the outgoing government in Beirut agree that elections in Lebanon should take place on schedule in May. He also said he thinks there is a way out of meeting international demands for a Syrian withdrawal that is a "win-win situation" for all sides.

Larsen says the withdrawal promised by President al-Assad will end Syria's long role as a dominant political and military influence in Lebanon. Speaking yesterday, Larsen said Assad appears genuinely committed to conducting a complete withdrawal in two-stages.

"The first stage will see the relocation of all military forces and the intelligence apparatus into Bekaa Valley [in eastern Lebanon] by the end of March, 2005. Further, a significant number of Syrian troops -- including intelligence -- will withdraw from Lebanon into Syria during this stage," Roed-Larsen said.

A report in "The Washington Post" quotes UN officials as saying that one-third of the estimated 14,000 Syrian soldiers now in Lebanon will leave the country by the beginning of April. The exact number of Syrian intelligence agents in Lebanon is unknown but is estimated by experts as about 5,000.

Larsen told journalists in Beirut today that there is a timetable specifying when the last Syrian soldier should leave Lebanon. But the UN envoy says he will not disclose that deadline until after he has met back in New York early next week with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"The second stage will lead to a complete and full withdrawal of all Syrian military personnel, assets and the intelligence apparatus," Larsen said.

Al-Assad has previously said no decision would be made on a final withdrawal schedule until a joint Lebanese-Syrian military commission meets on 7 April.

Syria has been under growing international pressure for a complete withdrawal since last September when the United States and France joined together to push through UN Resolution 1559. That resolution demands all foreign troops to leave Lebanon but sets no deadline.

The assassination last month of Lebanon's Sunni Muslim former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, has led to even greater pressure on Syria.

Hariri's death has sparked daily opposition protests in Beirut against the Syria, with many demonstrators blaming Damascus for the killing. It also has redoubled international calls for the Syrians to leave. Syria has repeatedly denied any involvement in the assassination.

U.S. President George W. Bush is demanding that Syrian troops and its intelligence agents leave before Lebanon's general elections in May.

Russia says it also wants to see a withdrawal. But the Kremlin has been reluctant to set any deadlines. Russia's UN ambassador Andrei Denisov has said it is "reasonable" for troops to withdraw by May.

But Denisov says there is no need to fix any timetable. Instead, he says Syria should be encourage to "act expeditiously."