Syria fails to guarantee complete withdrawal

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The Independent Online

Syria said it would withdraw its troops and intelligence services from their current positions in Lebanon "shortly" but stopped short of saying whether the withdrawal would mean an end to Syria's military presence in its smaller neighbour.

Syria said it would withdraw its troops and intelligence services from their current positions in Lebanon "shortly" but stopped short of saying whether the withdrawal would mean an end to Syria's military presence in its smaller neighbour.

"We are going to withdraw under the terms of the [1989] Taif accord, which requires us to negotiate a timetable with the Lebanese government and to redeploy our troops in the first stage to the Bekaa valley," Bushra Kanafani, a Syrian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said. "The whole thing is not going to take long."

Washington and Paris issued a joint statement yesterday demanding an immediate and total withdrawal of Syria's 14,000 remaining troops but Damascus insisted a complete withdrawal would serve neither Lebanon's or its own interests.

"[Bekaa] is very important strategically and we feel many Lebanese, including members of the opposition, realise this. The Israel military threat is there and we cannot forget that fact," Ms Kanafani said.

Damascus is facing intense international pressure to withdraw completely, as demanded by the French-US backed UN resolution 1559, and at the London summit on Palestinian reform yesterday, Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, repeated US assertions that Syria is "out of step with where the region is going" and "out of step with the aspirations of the people of the Middle East".

The resignation of Omar Karami's government capped a tense fortnight for Damascus which began with accusations of its involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and recent critic of Syrian power in Beirut. The Syrian government strongly denies involvement. Syria was also blamed by Israel for last Friday's Tel Aviv nightclub bombing, with the Israeli foreign ministry saying it would circulate proof to international diplomats in the EU and UN Security Council that Islamic Jihad leaders in Damascus ordered the attack.

Bashar Assad, the Syrian President, called Israel's accusation "pointlessly offensive". In a recent interview with Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, Dr Assad said that an analysis of the pressures being exerted by the White House on Syria "leads one to expect a campaign similar to the one that led up to the attack on Iraq".

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