By ALBERT AJI, Associated Press Writer DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria will withdraw troops from mountain and coastal areas in Lebanon in line with a 1989 agreement, Lebanon’s defense minister said Thursday amid international pressure following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.  Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad said the troops will be withdrawn to the eastern Bekaa Valley on the Syrian border, but he gave no timeframe. Lebanese and Syrian military officers have begun meetings to define “the dates and the way” the withdrawal will take place, Murad said, adding that the pullback was in line with the Arab-brokered Taif agreement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.
The decision to withdraw has been taken,” Murad said in television interviews. “What remains is the exact timing.”

In the wake of Hariri’s Feb. 14 assassination, the Bush administration has issued strong calls for Syria to withdraw completely from Lebanon, where Damascus has about 15,000 troops. The Americans have also said Syria should remove its intelligence agents, but there was no sign of such a move.

Murad’s comments came shortly after Syria announced it would withdraw troops from Lebanon in accordance with the Taif accord but indicated the pullout would not be immediate or total.

“The important withdrawals which have already been carried out and what will be carried out later will be in agreement with Lebanon based on the Taif Accord,” the Syrian Foreign Ministry statement said.

The Syrian statement, read to journalists by deputy Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem, did not give a timetable but noticeably referred to “withdrawals,” and not just deployment, the term used for past troop movements.

Syria also indicated the withdrawal will not be complete and sought to explain why it would not immediately take such a step.

“Speeding up the pace of withdrawals requires enabling the Lebanese army and internal security forces to fill the vacuum that could take place in a way that does not undermine the security of Lebanon and Syria,” the statement said.

There was no sign Thursday of any troop movement in Lebanon, where Syria is the main power broker.

Syria once had more than 40,000 troops into Lebanon during the civil war and for years has pledged to implement the Taif agreement. It has redeployed troops several times since 2000 — most recently in December, when it pulled plainclothes soldiers out of three security and intelligence centers in Beirut and north Lebanon. It still maintained other intelligence offices in the city, however.

It never implemented a withdrawal to the eastern Bekaa Valley, a predominantly Shiite area that borders on Syria, that was scheduled for the early 1990s. The accord also calls for an eventual total pullout.

Syrian troops are deployed on some of the high ground of central Lebanon in Maronite Christian and Druse towns of the central mountains that separate the coast from the Bekaa Valley. Syrian troops were removed in earlier withdrawals from the coast near Palestinian refugee camps and south of Beirut.

Syria has viewed control of the Bekaa Valley as a strategic interest, seeing it as an avenue of attack for Israel to drive into Syria. The Lebanese-Syrian border is only a 20-minute drive from Damascus.

Israel, which withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year guerrilla war against the militant group Hezbollah, welcomed Syria’s announcement. The United Nations (newsweb sites) drew the border between Israel and Lebanon, but Hezbollah disputes part of it and periodically attacks Israeli forces guarding that part of the line.

“Israel has done its part to implement U.N. resolutions when we pulled out of Lebanon, and I think now the international community is waiting for Syria to do its part,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.


An Israeli official added on condition of anonymity that Israel would have to study the Syrian declaration to determine if it promised a real change.

Lebanon’s opposition dismissed the Syrian announcement Thursday as vague and said it contained nothing new.

“There is a missing word in the Syrian Foreign Ministry statement, and that word is the ‘complete’ withdrawal from Lebanon,” opposition member Samir Franjieh told the Lebanese Al Hayat-LBC television station.

Pressure against Syria has grown inside Lebanon and from abroad since the bombing, which opponents blame on Syria and the Lebanese government. Both deny the accusations.

A U.N. Security Council resolution in September demanded Syria withdraw its troops, and President Bush (newsweb sites) increased the pressure Wednesday, reiterating that “the position of our government is Syria must withdraw not only the troops, but its secret services from Lebanon.”

The Syrian statement warned against “provocation and incitement from some inside Lebanon and abroad,” saying such behavior may damage the interests of all parties, particularly Lebanon.

The Lebanese opposition has accused the pro-Syrian Lebanese government and Syria of having a hand in the assassination of Hariri, who was tilting toward the opposition as Lebanon prepares to hold parliamentary elections in April and May.

The Syrian statement also said Damascus was ready to “offer any assistance Lebanon requires” in the investigation and affirms its “extreme interest in completing the investigation … as soon as possible to unveil the truth, away from the emotional accusations and irresponsible statements.”

Syria also offered to help Lebanon with the investigation into Hariri’s slaying.

Hariri and 16 others died in a bombing that destroyed his motorcade of armor-plated vehicles. More than 100 people were injured. Since then, loud and massive demonstrations have been held against Syria and the Damascus-allied Lebanese government, as well as calls for Syria to withdraw its troops.

The United Nations, Washington and others joined with Hariri’s family to demand an international investigation into the bombing. Lebanon has expressed willingness to cooperate with international experts. A U.N. team dispatched by Secretary-General Kofi Annan (newsweb sites) was expected in Beirut later Thursday.


Sam F. Ghattas contributed to this story from Beirut, Lebanon.