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Syrians welcome home troops from Lebanon

Sun., March 13, 2005

BEIRUT, Lebanon – A 62-vehicle convoy carrying Syrian troops and equipment withdrawn from northern Lebanon crossed the border early Saturday in a heavy snow as Syrians at the frontier welcomed the troops home, throwing flowers and chanting, “We love Syria!”

But intelligence agents remained in nine offices in northern Lebanon, and the U.N. Mideast envoy said Syria needs to produce a timetable for a full withdrawal from the rest of Lebanon.

The civilians gathered under the roof of a Syrian customs checkpoint, seeking shelter from the cold and heavy snow that delayed the crossing for several hours. They waved Syrian flags and blew whistles. Some handed flowers to the soldiers, while others threw rice, rose petals and sweets in a traditional Arab welcome. Some in the crowd sang national songs to the beat of drums.

The convoy crossed the border at Jedeidet Yabous, 30 miles from Damascus and 62 miles east of Beirut, the Lebanese capital.

Under international pressure, Syria last week began pulling its 14,000 forces back to the eastern Bekaa Valley. It is to negotiate with the government on their complete withdrawal from Lebanon later.

Despite the pullout from the north of Lebanon, nine Syrian intelligence offices remain open there, including in the towns of Tripoli, Akkar, Minye and Amyoun. Plainclothes intelligence agents operate from the guarded offices in apartment buildings and deal directly with Lebanese.

U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Friday the United Nations expects Syrian President Bashar Assad to produce a timetable for the full withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence officers from Lebanon.

Speaking in Amman, where he sought Jordanian support for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 on Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Roed-Larsen indicated he was optimistic about his meeting with Assad in Damascus on Saturday.

“I expect that we will get the commitment and timetables for the full implementation of 1559,” Roed-Larsen said.

When asked whether that meant the complete withdrawal of Syrian troops in Lebanon as well as its intelligence officers, Roed-Larsen responded: “I said ‘full’ and ‘timetables.’”

The U.N. Security Council is to receive a report next month from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, based on Roed-Larsen’s visit, on Syria’s implementation of the resolution. It then will consider next steps, which as a last resort could include sanctions on Syria if it deems the country to have flouted the demands.

But U.N. associate spokeswoman Marie Okabe said in New York that Roed-Larsen was going to the region “to have a constructive dialogue” and “was not operating with the use of threats.”

The holding of free and fair elections, to begin next month and continue into May, has been stressed repeatedly by the United States.

“The goal in the near term is to make certain that the Lebanese people have a fair opportunity to have free elections and to determine their own political future,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday.


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