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UN Team in Lebanon to Verify Syrian Troop Pullout

By Lin Noueihed BEIRUT (Reuters) – A U.N. team arrived in Lebanon on Thursday to verify whether Syria had withdrawn all its troops and intelligence agents in line with a Security Council resolution. In further signs of Syria’s waning influence in Lebanon, the new government replaced the pro-Syrian police, justice and intelligence chiefs, who were forced out under pressure from Damascus’s opponents, and removed the head of state security. Syria told the United Nations on Tuesday it had ended its 29-year military and intelligence presence in its tiny neighbor and was in full compliance with resolution 1559. But U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he could not confirm that until the U.N. verification mission had checked it.

That team arrived in Damascus on Tuesday seeking maps of the bases Syria has abandoned in Lebanon and a final report on its pullout from Syrian officials.

The eight-member mission will visit former Syrian army and intelligence bases to check the last forces have indeed gone. It was not clear how long that process would take.

Syria entered Lebanon early in the 1975-1990 civil war and has dominated Lebanon militarily and politically since, incurring little international opposition until the Security Council passed a resolution in September demanding it withdraw.

Pressure on Syria to end its grip mounted after the Feb. 14 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, which many Lebanese blamed on Damascus.

The assassination provoked large street protests and an international outcry, prompting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to announce on March 5 that he would bring his 14,000-strong forces home. The pullout was completed in less than two months.

PREPARING FOR PROBE

Another U.N. team met foreign and justice ministry officials on Thursday to make logistical preparations for an international inquiry into Hariri’s killing in Beirut.

The Security Council ordered the international inquiry on April 7 after a fact-finding mission concluded that Lebanon’s own probe into the killing was seriously flawed.

The report had also suggested that even an international probe would probably be unable to fulfil its mission while Lebanon’s powerful pro-Syrian security chiefs stayed in office.

The cabinet named Saeed Mirza public prosecutor, Asharaf Reefi as internal security chief and George Khouri as head of military intelligence.

It postponed a decision on naming a successor to the most powerful of the security chiefs, former General Security head Jamil al-Sayyed, who resigned a day before the last Syrians left.

Some 50 people, including administrative and security staff are expected to participate in the probe, but diplomats in New York said this week the United Nations was still looking for someone to lead it. The advance team was working out living arrangements and security for the team.

Hariri’s death threw Lebanon into its worst political crisis since the war, leaving the country without a government for about seven weeks and threatening to delay the general election.

But Lebanon’s new government won a vote of confidence in parliament on Wednesday and immediately called elections, the first without a Syrian military presence for 33 years. The polls will be held in four rounds from May 29 to June 19.

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