Thu, Jul 17, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Syria prepares to withdraw from Lebanese border

AP , BEIRUT, LEBANON

About 1,000 of the 20,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon have begun dismantling bases near Beirut and in eastern and northern areas in preparation for withdrawing to the border or leaving Lebanon, a senior Lebanese military official said on Tuesday.

Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, has not commented on the latest troop redeployment, which was viewed in Beirut as a bid by Damascus to placate critics in the West and Lebanon.

The redeployment expected to be completed Tuesday began Monday night from posts in the coastal towns of Khalde and Aramoun south of the Lebanese capital and in northern and eastern Lebanese, the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The official said Syrian troops who withdrew from south of Beirut would redeploy to eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria, while those who vacated posts in northern Lebanon would return to Syria.

The official could not say how many would leave Lebanon. The redeployment was not expected to reduce Syria's dominance in the politics of Lebanon, its western neighbor.

A 1989 agreement ending Lebanon's 15-year sectarian civil war made Syria the guarantor of peace and security among the country's Christian and Muslim communities.

Christian opponents of the Lebanese government demand that Syria withdraw all of its troops from Lebanon, saying the security situation has improved since Israel ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. However, the pro-Syrian government, with the support of the country's Muslim majority, says the Syrians are still needed until there is comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

Syria once had some 35,000 troops in Lebanon, first sent in 1976 to quell the civil war but later drawn into the conflict. It began thinning its military presence in 2001, making three withdrawals from Beirut and populous central Lebanon, a stronghold of right-wing Christian opposition groups, and northern Lebanon, bringing the numbers to about 20,000 soldiers.

This week's redeployment came amid heightened regional tensions -- increased armed attacks on US occupation forces in Iraq -- and strenuous US attempts to implement the internationally backed "road map" plan designed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and set the stage for an overall Middle East peace settlement.

Syrian-US relations have long been strained by Washington allegations that Damascus supports terrorism. During the Iraqi war, tension heightened when the US accused Syria of supplying military equipment to the Iraqis and giving refuge to former Iraqi officials. Syria denied the charges.

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