Syrians dig in as Saudis join calls to leave Lebanon

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Syrian troops have been fortifying their positions east of Beirut as pressure mounts on Damascus to pull out of Lebanon without delay.

Syrian troops have been fortifying their positions east of Beirut as pressure mounts on Damascus to pull out of Lebanon without delay.

Syrian troops were digging in at Hammana, part of the mountain range 26km (16 miles) east of Beirut, and at three other positions along the ridge yesterday. "They're certainly not preparing to go home," said an eyewitness at Hammana.

The four positions represent the line to which Syrian troops withdrew in 1992 under the Taif accord, which legitimised the country's military presence in Lebanon.

After a meeting late on Wednesday at the mountain home of the Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, who has called for the resignation of Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud, some 70 opposition leaders called for Syria to announce a "clear-cut" timetable for the pull-out of Syria's 14,000 troops and the resignation of its security officials.

The statement did not mention the Taif accord, but also demanded the "immediate" resignation of Lebanon's public prosecutor and the country's six top security and intelligence officials, in advance of the findings by a Lebanese inquiry into the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

"These are the basis for our participation in anything in the future," said the MP Ahmad Fatfat, reading from the joint opposition statement.

After a meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh yesterday, Saudi officials said they had told President Bashar al-Assad that a full Syrian withdrawal must begin "soon", joining similar calls recently from Germany and the long-time Syrian ally Russia.

The reports on Syrian troops came a day after Time magazine published an interview with President Assad where he was quoted as saying that a full withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence agents would happen "maybe in the next few months. Not after that."

However a subsequent statement from an official at the presidential palace in Damascus denied that a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon would come within months, saying that the Taif accord was the basis under which any withdrawal would be negotiated.

A partial transcript of the Time interview, which was conducted in English, was read out by the Time reporter Joe Klein in an interview with CNN.

Syria is under intense US-led pressure to comply with UN Resolution 1559, which calls for the immediate and complete withdrawal of the country's troops and its intelligence agents from Lebanon, with the UN secretary general Kofi Annan due to report on compliance with the resolution in mid-April. Mr Annan announced that he was sending an envoy to the region last night.

"Syria suffers from a serious PR dilemma," said Ayman Abdul Nour, a former adviser to the Syrian President. "There is no co-ordination. There is no serious committee established to manage the current crisis. Each minister, if they do speak, does so only out of their own initiative and about their own opinion. There has been no meeting to co-ordinate the government's position. They are just playing for time."