Lebanese officials said Syrian troops will begin pulling back toward the Syrian border today, as the leader of the Hezbollah militant group called for a demonstration in Beirut to counter weeks of anti-Syrian protests.
Syrians – not unexpectedly – backed President Bashar Assad’s decision to pull troops toward eastern Lebanon and insisted yesterday that he was not bowing to international pressure.
The withdrawal from central and northern Lebanon toward the Bekaa Valley will begin right after a meeting in Damascus, Syria, of the presidents of the two countries, Lebanese Defence Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad said.
Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud will decide on the timetable of the pullback and repositioning of forces.
“The Syrian withdrawal will begin Monday directly after the meeting in Damascus of the Syrian and Lebanese leaderships,” Murad said.
Hezbollah’s powerful leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, called for a massive peaceful demonstration tomorrow in central Beirut to show loyalty to Syria. The protest, he said, was to denounce international interference, show support for resistance movements and foil any attempts to make a peace deal with Israel.
Underlining tensions between the two camps, a pro-Syrian supporter fired on an anti-Syrian activist and wounded him, police said. The two clashed near Martyrs Square in central Beirut.
Assad told his parliament on Saturday that the redeployment of 14,000 Syrian troops to the Bekaa Valley is the first phase of a two-step pullback, but he left unclear whether troops eventually would leave Lebanon or remain near the border.
He also said nothing about pulling out intelligence officials, who the US said also must leave.
US President George Bush said on Friday that anything less than a full Syrian withdrawal by May – when Lebanese parliamentary elections are to be held – would be an unacceptable “half-measure”.
US officials reiterated that demand yesterday.
The 1989 Arab-brokered Taif Accord called for Syria to move its troops to the Lebanese border and for both countries to then negotiate the withdrawal.
A UN resolution, drafted by the US and France in September, called on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, stop influencing politics in the country and allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections as scheduled. France and Russia also have demanded a full withdrawal.
Syria has had troops in Lebanon since 1976, when they were sent as peacekeepers during that country’s 1975-1990 civil war. When the war ended, the troops remained while Syria dominated Lebanon’s politics.