BEIRUT (Reuters) – About 2,000 Syrian troops have pulled out of eastern Lebanon over the past week, a senior Lebanese security source said Monday, bringing Syria a step closer to ending its 29-year military domination of Lebanon. The source said small units in the eastern Bekaa Valley were going home, leaving behind a division of the Syrian army as well as scores of intelligence agents. A Syrian-Lebanese military committee is due to meet next week to set a timeline for withdrawing the 8,000 remaining forces. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said he expects Syria to complete the pull out before general elections due in May.
Facing immense international pressure and popular Lebanese protest, Syria has promised to withdraw all military personnel, intelligence agents and equipment it poured into Lebanon early in the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.
Damascus has completed the first stage of a two-phase withdrawal plan, pulling back to the Bekaa Valley and withdrawing more than a third of the 14,000 troops it kept in its tiny neighbor.
It pulled troops out of about a dozen positions in the Bekaa last week. Sunday, it left its two largest and last anti-aircraft positions, the sources said.
Witnesses said soldiers in Mashghara and nearby areas on the southwestern edge of the Bekaa were packing up equipment on Monday. Trucks were being brought in to load the hardware.
A senior Lebanese Foreign Ministry official left for New York to attend Security Council deliberations over a new resolution setting up an international investigation into last month’s assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
A U.N. fact-finding team said in a report released last week that Lebanon’s own inquiry into Hariri’s death on Feb. 14 was seriously flawed and called for an independent inquiry, a demand long made by the Lebanese opposition.
A few thousand women, waving Lebanese flags and carrying pictures of Hariri, rallied in a central Beirut square to denounce three blasts that have rocked the anti-Syrian Christian heartland this month, killing three people and wounding 24.
“Enough bloodshed, enough violence … enough explosive charges,” MP Nayla Mouawad told the crowd.
The U.N. mission said Syrian military intelligence bore primary responsibility for a lack of security, protection and law and order, and that Lebanese security forces showed “systematic negligence.”
The United States and France, which co-sponsored a U.N. resolution calling for Syrian forces to leave, were expected to introduce a resolution in the Security Council calling for an international probe.
The Lebanese Syrian-backed authorities, put on the defensive by the U.N. report, said they would accept such a probe.
“Syria never said that there is no need for an international investigation. This is not true,” a Syrian official source told Reuters. “Damascus emphasized that it would approve of any decision that Lebanon takes in this regard.”