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French Version

U.S. gives cautious welcome to Syrian pullout pledge

Larsen insists Lebanon's May elections must take place as scheduled

The United States has given a cautious welcome to Syria's promise to a UN envoy to withdraw its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon, but insisted Damascus needed to follow through with actions as soon as possible.

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White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said the United States was awaiting details of the withdrawal plan from U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen after his talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.

Hadley said: "Initial reports are encouraging. But at the end of the day it's going to be deeds, not words, that matter."

Speaking after a day of meetings in Lebanon discussing the implementation of UN Resolution 1559, Larsen also insisted Lebanon's forthcoming polls must take place freely and on schedule in the Spring.

Larsen's comments follow a warning over the weekend from Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami that polls may have to be postponed if the country's political opposition fails to enter a dialogue with the government.

Speaking after meeting with leading Lebanese opposition member Walid Jumblatt, Larsen reiterated that the country's opposition and government must open talks to break the current political impasse.

He said: "My good friend the leader of the Lebanese opposition Jumblatt and I have agreed that dialogue is the only way to ensure Lebanon's stability."

Lebanon's opposition has so far refused government overtures of dialogue until its demands for a complete Syrian withdrawal and the resignation of Lebanese and Syrian security chiefs are fully met.

During a series of meetings with the Lahoud and other government officials, Larsen was told Lebanese and Syrian authorities would set the date for a final Syrian pullout from Lebanon early next month.

Larsen, who also met with Lebanese foreign minister Mahmoud Hammoud, said: "I am very glad to say that I think the foreign minister and I see eye to eye on all issues."

But Hammoud insisted that the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon would take place "in accordance to mechanisms set in the Taif Accord."

He added: "Syrian troops will not withdraw completely from Lebanon until at least after an April 7 meeting between senior Syrian and Lebanese military officers to discuss the redeployment. The joint military commission will set the duration, time and location in these matters."

Following his meeting with Hammoud, Larsen said implementing the resolution is "in the best interests of all parties concerned and will take into consideration the necessity of political stability in Lebanon."

But following his meeting with Larsen, Jumblatt again reiterated his rejection of any moves to disarm Hizbullah outlined in Resolution 1559.

Speaking to the media in his mountain home of Mukhtara, Jumblatt insisted Hizbullah's role would continue until all Lebanese territory is liberated.

The Chouf MP said: "That has been our main problem with 1559, maintaining Hizbullah's arms until all Lebanese land is liberated."

Lebanese Hammoud insisted all UN resolutions must be implemented in full, "especially Resolution 194, stipulating the Palestinian refugees right of return to their homeland."

Larsen's mission, which will see him back in the region early next month, has been tentatively lauded by the U.S.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Syria's commitment to the UN that it would withdraw its troops from Lebanon was a "positive step."

"Obviously there are some positive elements to this. It is positive that Syria would begin to withdraw its forces out of Lebanon, but not just to the border. We, our European allies and many Arab states in the region agree on this issue," she added.

Hadley also touched on the issue of Hizbullah, saying the Lebanese resistance group has "an opportunity" to participate in the Lebanese political process if it agrees to "a democratic future for Lebanon under the rule of law."

Though 1559 demands Hizbullah be disarmed, in a surprise move Hadley deferred to the incoming Lebanese government to address the issue, signaling it was not an immediate priority.

He said: "Of course, one of the challenges for that new government will be how to deal with those elements, if any, that continue to take the path of violence and terrorism. Obviously, they have no place in a society based on democracy and rule of law."

Foreign ministers of the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council meeting on Sunday called Syria's withdrawal a "positive step" toward enhancing Lebanese-Syrian relations and safeguarding security and stability in the region.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, whose country currently chairs the six-nation bloc, praised Assad's "wise decision" to end Syria's three-decade military presence in Lebanon, terming it a step in the direction of implementing Resolution 1559.

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Beirut 13-03-2005
Mayssam Zaaroura
The Daily Star

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