President George W. Bush issued a new warning to Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, with the White House saying the Damascus government was having an intimidatory impact as Lebanon stages elections.

Bush said he was “disturbed” by reports that Syrian intelligence remain in Lebanon, in breach of a UN resolution ordering all Syrian forces out of the country.

“Our message to Syria — and it’s not just the message of the United States; the United Nations has said the same thing — is that in order for Lebanon to be free,” Syria needs to “not only remove their military, but to remove intelligence officers as well,” Bush said at the White House.

UN Secretary General
Kofi Annan on Friday ordered a UN verification mission back to Lebanon because of reports of “elements” of Syrian intelligence still in the country which is halfway through a four-stage national election.

A UN Security Council resolution passed in September ordered all foreign nations to withdraw their forces from Lebanon.

Syria has strongly denied that any of its forces remain in the neighbouring country where it has had a predominant influence for three decades.

In Damascus, Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah said the comments by Bush and other US administration officials were “false and lacking in objectivity”.

“All Syrian forces, whatever their service, have been withdrawn from Lebanon,” the minister told the official SANA news agency.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the United States was “deeply concerned about Syria’s interference and intimidation inside Lebanon.”

“Syria needs to comply fully with United Nations Council Resolution 1559. That means getting all their intelligence operatives out of Lebanon,” he added. “We are concerned that those intelligence operatives are interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs.

“We have all called on the United Nations to send the verification teams back to Lebanon,” McClellan said.

The State Department has also warned about Syria’s role in the Lebanese election, but spokesman Sean McCormack held back from the use of sanctions that could be applied under the Syria Accountability Act.

“This is not an issue between the US and Syria, this is an issue between Syria and the rest of the world,” McCormack told a briefing Friday.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the number of Syrian agents in Lebanon had not reduced despite the withdrawal promise by Damascus.

Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN secretary general’s envoy for Lebanon, is to meet Syria’s President Bashir Al-Assad in Damascus on Sunday to discuss the Syrian withdrawal and the UN resolution.