BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he expected Syrian troops to pull out of Lebanon in a few months, as hundreds of Lebanese protesters returned to central Beirut on Tuesday demanding Syria quit their country. Syria has 14,000 troops in Lebanon, but its dominant role in the country has come under increasing pressure as a result of mass demonstrations sparked by the assassination last month of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Two weeks of unprecedented protests forced the pro-Syrian cabinet of Prime Minister Omar Karami to step down on Monday, piling pressure on Damascus, and left officials with a complicated search for a new premier.

“It (withdrawal) should be very soon and maybe in the next few months. Not after that,” Assad told Time magazine in an interview published on its Web Site on Tuesday. “I can’t give you a technical answer. The point is the next few months.”

Assad would not give a definite timetable for pulling out his army, saying it depended on technical, rather than political, considerations.

“I could not say we could do it in two months because I have not had the meeting with the army people. They may say it will take six months.”

Market fears of a political vacuum put the Lebanese pound under intense pressure, forcing the central bank to dip deeply into its foreign exchange reserves to defend the currency.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (newsweb sites) welcomed what she called moves to restore democracy in Lebanon.

“Events in Lebanon are moving in a very important direction,” she said in London. “The Lebanese people are starting to express their aspirations for democracy … This is something that we support very much.”


Rice and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier repeated calls for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

Washington and Paris, co-sponsors of Security Council resolution 1559 demanding an end to foreign interference in Lebanon, called for general elections planned for May to be free and fair and suggested international assistance.

“They must have the opportunity to chart their own course through free and fair parliamentary elections this spring, bolstered by an international observer presence prior to and during the elections,” the countries said in a joint statement.

Thousands of demonstrators turned a square in Beirut into a sea of Lebanese flags on Monday night and exploded into riotous celebration when the government unexpectedly quit after a parliament debate on Hariri’s killing.

The jubilant protesters left in the early hours of Tuesday only for a few hundred to return hours later, vowing to keep up their street protests until Syrian troops left the country.

“Our hopes are growing regarding Syria’s exit after the resignation of the government,” Patrick Risha, a 22-year-old political science student told Reuters at Martyrs’ Square. “This encourages us to stay here and continue our protest.”

Most of the opposition protesters are Maronite Christians, who have long opposed Syria’s role in Lebanon, Druze and some Sunni Muslims. Shi’ite Muslims, Lebanon’s largest community, have mainly stayed away from the anti-Syrian rallies.


“The Lebanese popular will has triumphed … but this is not enough,” main opposition figure Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told Reuters Television at his mansion in the Chouf mountain.

“The next step is to have an interim government to supervise the elections and the results of the elections, which will determine the next government which will in turn execute the Taif agreement with the Syrian government,” he said.

The Taif Accord that ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war called for a redeployment of Syrian troops to eastern Lebanon, followed by agreement on a timetable for a full withdrawal.

Newspapers hailed the role of the Lebanese in trying to bring change. “People power brings down Karami’s cabinet,” the headline in Beirut’s English-language Daily Star newspaper read.

The country’s top two pro-Syrian officials, President Emile Lahoud and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, were in contact to discuss a new government, officials said. Lahoud was set to call for consultations this week with parliamentary deputies to choose a successor.

(Additional reporting by Rula Najem in Beirut and Arshad Mohammed in London)