Syria's troop presence in Lebanon reached its lowest level in three decades as 2,000 more soldiers returned home in recent days, the Lebanese military said on Monday. The move puts Damascus on track to have all its forces out before Lebanese parliamentary elections in May -- a key US and UN demand.
Despite the continued troop withdrawal, pressure mounted against Syria and its allied Lebanese government.
Lebanon's acting Foreign Ministry chief, Butros Asaker, flew to New York to attend a UN Security Council session aimed at forming an international inquiry into former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri's Feb. 14 assassination.
Lebanon has grudgingly agreed to go along with a UN-led inquiry, which has the potential to embarrass both Syrian and Lebanese authorities, who many here believe were involved in Hariri's death. Both governments deny such claims.
A UN fact-finding mission has already criticized Syria for creating the conditions for Hariri's death and poured scorn on the Lebanese investigation into the killing.
Some 5,000 female activists staged a noisy march in downtown Beirut demanding Syria end its control over Lebanon, which stretches back to the early stages of this country's 1975-'90 civil war.
"Syria get out of Lebanon," shouted the women while walking about 1km from the seafront street where Hariri's motorcade was blown up to his grave in Martyrs' Square.
Syria is believed to have about 8,000 troops in eastern Lebanon following the return home of 2,000 soldiers during recent days, a Lebanese military official said on condition of anonymity. Immediately before Hariri's death, about 14,000 Syrian troops were in Lebanon. At their peak they numbered about 40,000.
Also Monday, Syrian soldiers dismantled eight positions near the eastern city of Baalbek, while about 25km to the north in Chaat, more troops loaded goods into 10 trucks, each towing an anti-aircraft gun.
The official said the Lebanese-Syrian Military Commission will meet next week to agree on the second phase of the military withdrawal, which is expected to see the complete removal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. About 4,000 soldiers left in the withdrawal's first phase that ended on March 17.
Pro-Syrian Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Murad said the pullout will continue "until all the Syrian army has entered Syrian territory."
The UN and Washington are demanding a full Syrian withdrawal before Lebanese parliamentary elections due to begin in April and go through May.
"The full pullout from Lebanon will remove any pretext claiming that Syria influences Lebanese elections," Syrian political analyst Imad Fawzi al-Shueibi said.
"Syria wants to push away any possibility of being a target" for US or international pressures, he added.