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Annan Wants Syria Out by Spring

Times Staff Writer

Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Thursday that Syria must fully withdraw all of its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon before Lebanese parliamentary elections scheduled for spring, so voters will not be intimidated.

Annan set out the timetable after meeting with his special envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, who recently returned from talks in the region to press Syria to comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding a swift and total withdrawal. In a statement, Annan emphasized that the elections must “be free and fair and take place as scheduled” from mid-April to mid-May.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has not publicly agreed to the pullout, but Roed-Larsen said at a news conference that Assad had assured him it would occur. Roed-Larsen added that there was broad consensus inside and outside the Security Council that the withdrawal should be completed before the elections, but there is no threat of sanctions if Syria does not fully pull out.

“There isn’t an ‘or else,’ ” Roed-Larsen said. “We simply expect that it happens.”

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The first phase of the withdrawal, negotiated in Aleppo, Syria, last week, calls for Syria to relocate all troops and intelligence agents to the Bekaa Valley. Two-thirds of them would stay on the Lebanese side of the border and one-third would return to Syria by April 1.

“By and large, this commitment is already fulfilled,” Roed-Larsen said, noting that of the approximately 14,000 troops that were in Lebanon, at least 4,000 had returned to Syria in the last week, with the rest in the Bekaa. Syria’s intelligence headquarters in Beirut has been closed, and offices in other parts of the country have been vacated, he said.

By April 7, a Syrian-Lebanese committee will establish the timeline to complete the withdrawal before elections.

Roed-Larsen did not comment on a U.N.-commissioned investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the results of which are expected to be delivered to Annan in the coming days. Lebanese opposition groups accuse Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agents of cooperating in the killing and removing evidence from the scene. Both governments deny involvement.

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Syria first sent troops to Lebanon in 1976 to help quash a civil war, and it kept them there even after the war ended in 1990. It began removing its troops about 10 days ago, after Hariri’s assassination sparked massive anti-Damascus protests in Beirut that helped bring down the Lebanese government. International pressure, including from the United States, also spurred the withdrawal.

The U.N. resolution also demands the disarmament of all militias, including Hezbollah guerrillas. But leaders of Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group backed by Syria and Iran, say they will refuse to put down their guns and pursue their goals politically, as President Bush has demanded. The group has drawn hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to rallies against U.S. pressure on Syria.

Washington says Hezbollah will stay on its list of terrorist organizations until it disarms.


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