UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is sending a UN team back to Lebanon to check reports that Syrian intelligence officials may still be operating in the country in violation of a Security Council resolution, a UN official said on Friday.
UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said Annan told members of the Security Council at their monthly lunch that "he intends to send a verification team back to Lebanon, but at this point no date has been set."
The US has been pressing Annan for the return of the team and White House spokesman Scott McClellan welcomed Annan's decision, calling for the team to stay in Lebanon through elections and formation of a new Cabinet "to better clarify reports of Syria's continued intelligence presence and to deter any further efforts to derail that democratic process that is under way."
Earlier on Friday, US President George W. Bush said he was disturbed by reports that Syrian intelligence was still operating in Lebanon.
Syria's ambassador to the UN, Fayssal Mekdad, called the US accusations a "smear campaign" and insisted that all Syrian intelligence operatives had been withdrawn from the country.
In comments clearly aimed at the Bush administration, Mekdad said that "certain circles" want "to kill" the verification team's report which he said "confirmed that Syria has fully withdrawn its troops, intelligence and assets."
When pressed about the team's refusal to confirm the pullout of intelligence operatives, Mekdad said: "I think what the report said on the nature of these operations is correct ... What we are sure of in Syria is that we have withdrawn everybody."
Mekdad also dismissed a New York Times report quoting an unnamed administration official as saying the US had received "credible information" that Syrian operatives were plotting the assassination of senior Lebanese political leaders.