BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s opposition on Wednesday demanded Syrian troops and intelligence agents leave their country and Syrian-backed Lebanese security chiefs resign. The opposition said in a statement that pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud must accept the demands before they would join any discussions on forming a new government. Two weeks of demonstrations forced the pro-Syrian government of Prime Minister Omar Karami to quit Monday, leaving officials with a complex search for a new head of government. “The … step that the opposition considers essential in its demands on the road to salvation and independence is the total withdrawal of the Syrian army and intelligence service from Lebanon,” said the statement read by MP Ahmad Fatfat.

Angry protesters blamed Syria and the government, either directly or indirectly, for the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syria denies the charge.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Time magazine in an interview published this week that Syria’s 14,000 troops might pull out of Lebanon in the next few months, with the timing technical, not political.

Washington expressed skepticism. “What is needed now is not rhetoric — whether private or public. What is needed is action on the ground,” said David Satterfield, a senior State Department official who visited Lebanon this week.

The Lebanese opposition meeting called for protesters to keep up overnight vigils held over the past week.

Several hundred people waving the red-and-white Lebanese flag gathered at Martyrs Square, next to Hariri’s grave, on Wednesday evening. Loudspeakers blared nationalist songs and cars beeped their horns in support as they drove past.

Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri said after talks with President Emile Lahoud that contacts were under way on how the president would consult deputies on naming a prime minister-designate. The two men have close links to Syria.

“I was the first to warn against stepping into (a power) vacuum. Now everyone has to rise to the level of their national duty,” Berri told reporters.

Market fears of a political vacuum in Lebanon put the Lebanese pound under pressure for a second day Wednesday, forcing the central bank to dig into its foreign exchange reserves to defend the currency.


Lebanon’s main opposition figures, buoyed by the government’s fall, announced their demands after meeting at the mountain palace of main opposition figure Walid Jumblatt.

“Only if the authorities agree on these conditions we might take part (in talks on government) formation,” Druze chief Jumblatt told reporters.

A neutral government should be formed, the opposition said, composed of people not standing in the May general elections and acceptable to most Lebanese.


Lebanon’s internal crisis has piled pressure on Syria, already under international fire for its dominant role in its tiny neighbor and accusations by Washington that it is involved in violence in Iraq (newsweb sites) and Israel.

Washington and Paris, co-sponsors of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 demanding Syria withdraw, have called for the May elections to be free and suggested international assistance.

Syria’s ambassador to London said Wednesday Damascus was redefining its Lebanon policy.

“The president has indicated the deep feelings of the Syrians that they don’t want to stay in Lebanon if the Lebanese don’t want them,” the ambassador, Sami Khiyami, told Reuters.

A U.N. team Wednesday continued its inquiry into Hariri’s death, retracing his last movements before his motorcade was blown up in a massive blast on Beirut’s seafront.

Rescue workers and family members found under the rubble the body of a man missing since the blast, taking the toll to 19.