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French Version

Lebanese and Syrian Army chiefs approve final pullout

'Syria will commence the second and final phase of troop withdrawal from the Bekaa Valley on Thursday'

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Lebanese Army Commander General Michel Suleiman and Syrian Chief of Staff Ali Habib decided Monday "to start the operation for the return of all the Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon," according to a statement from the Lebanese military. The statement added: "Syria will commence the second and final phase of troop withdrawal from the Bekaa Valley on Thursday."

Syria's troops are to conclude the pullout by April 30, a deadline given by Syrian President Bashar Assad to UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in Damascus on Sunday.

The announcement was hailed by U.S. President George W. Bush, who said he "appreciated" the timeline for a full withdrawal, but stressed that any pullout must be complete.

He said: "That not only means troops, but it means security forces, as far as I'm concerned."

Habib arrived at Lebanese Army headquarters in Ablah on Monday accompanied by Rustom Ghazaleh, the head of Syrian Intelligence here, and convened with Suleiman a special session of the Joint Military Committee (JMC) in the presence of Nasri Khoury, head of the High Syrian-Lebanese Council.

Following the meeting, the JMC issued a joint statement announcing the launch of "the final stage of the Syrian pullout on April 7."

The statement added: "We reaffirm our commitment to confront all pressures aimed at breaking the unity of the two countries in their efforts to achieve a comprehensive and just peace in the region."

Syria began pulling back its troops and intelligence agents to the Bekaa and across the Syrian border in early March in a first phase of a planned full withdrawal.

Also Monday, Lebanese Army units manned several vacated positions in Dahr al-Baidar and took control of joint Syrian-Lebanese positions in Deir al-Ahmar and Ras-Baalbek.

Residents of the Bekaa also began to breathe a little easier as the thousands of Syrian troops continued their pullout Monday and Lebanese soldiers took over positions in main towns and key checkpoints.

Witnesses said residents were filled with joy and delight when Lebanese troops took over a key Syrian checkpoint on the road to the eastern town of Chtaura.

Syrian intelligence agents had operated the busy Chtaura checkpoint for nearly three decades. Witnesses said Syrian troops also vacated their military hospital in the town.

One resident of Majdal Anjar, near the Syrian border, said the area's MPs, dignitaries and "tribal leaders" often used to go to Syrian Intelligence head Rustom Ghazaleh in Anjar either to lodge complaints or ask favors.

However, Baalbek resident Omar Suleiman said: "In general, ordinary people do not fear any security vacuum after the Syrians complete their pullout. Moreover, they had never looked for special favors or services from the Syrian troops or the intelligence agents."

According to Suleiman, the Lebanese Internal Security Forces took care of most security problems concerning complaints, quarrels or disputes.

Contrary to the claims of Defense Minister Abdel-Rahim Mrad, the Lebanese Army is already present in many towns and along several main roads in the Bekaa, Suleiman added.

"Local inhabitants are celebrating guardedly and look forward to seeing the Syrian troops leave the country," he said.

Suleiman further said that residents of Yammouni in the northern Bekaa claim they saw withdrawing Syrian troops dismantling a mobile network antenna in the area, which cut off more than 2,000 phone lines.

The Telecommunications Ministry confirmed the reports Monday and said it would replace the stolen equipment and restore service.

In the Zahle area, a group of protesters prevented representatives from the Baath Party from attending a gathering with other political party representatives.

Similar protests also took place in Baalbek against Baath Party members there.

In the southern Bekaa villages of Rashaya and Halwa, 40 trucks loaded with air defense batteries and other military equipment withdrew and headed for the border.

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Beirut 05-04-2005
Adnan El Ghoul
The Daily Star

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