Fri, Mar 04, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Lebanon demands Syria pull out


The Lebanese opposition issued a direct demand to Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday that he announce a full withdrawal from Lebanon, stepping up their pressure as Egypt and Saudi Arabia also sought to persuade Syria to pull out and avoid a showdown with the world.

Some in the opposition threatened that if their demands aren't met in the coming days they would call more mass protests like the 25,000-person rally Monday that forced the resignation of Lebanon's pro-Syrian government, stunning many in the Arab world.

The call for a Syrian withdrawal -- addressed bluntly to the leader of the country that has wielded control over Lebanon for more than a decade -- came as Assad was expected to travel to Riyadh yesterday to meet with the Saudi leadership, Arab and Saudi diplomats said.

There he was to discuss an Egyptian-Saudi proposal that he set a timetable to withdraw its 15,000 troops from Lebanon by April, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity. Syrian officials did not confirm the trip.

The two Mideast powerhouses are anxious to stem the growing outside pressure on the region. The Saudi government is also reportedly angry over the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which sparked the opposition protests. Hariri, a billionaire businessman who also held Saudi citizenship, was close to the Saudi royal family.

Syria has grown increasingly isolated, with even its traditional ally Russia joining France, the US and UN in calling on it to leave Lebanon. US President George W. Bush issued his strongest words yet against Syria on Wednesday, applauding statements a day before by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier.

"Both of them stood up and said loud and clear to Syria, `You get your troops and your secret services out of Lebanon so that good democracy has a chance to flourish,'" Bush said.

As Lebanese opposition leaders met in the mountains outside Beirut to plan their strategy, some were clearly itching to organize more dramatic demonstrations along the scale of Monday's 25,000-strong "independence uprising."

"If the demands are not fulfilled by Monday, we will stage mass demonstrations, sit-ins and the protests will continue on a daily basis until the demands are fulfilled," opposition legislator Faris Saeed said after the meeting. Lebanese, encouraged by the success of their first protests, were likely to respond to calls to take to the streets again.

But the opposition leaders, in a joint statement after the meeting Wednesday night, did not set a deadline and called only for a continuation of nightly sit-ins in downtown Beirut. On Wednesday night, around 1,000 people attended a "Syria Out" protest in Martyrs' Square, only half the size of the crowd the night before. Some demonstrators have been sleeping in tents in the square, vowing to maintain a vigil until the last Syrian soldier leaves the country.

Still, the opposition leaders meeting in Mukhtara, 30km southeast of Beirut, took a tough tone, saying they wanted an announcement of a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon "to be issued by the president of the Arab Syrian Republic."

The statement notably avoided reference to a gradual withdrawal. Syria has said it would redeploy its troops in accordance with the Taif Accord, a 1989-Arab brokered deal that called for a gradual redeployment from Lebanon.

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