Syria begins withdrawing troops from Lebanon

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Syria has begun to withdraw its troops from northern and southern Lebanon despite a large rally in Beirut to support the Syrian presence.

Lebanese Defence Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad said troops would pull back to the eastern Bekaa Valley on Tuesday, but refused to give a date for a full withdrawal. The movement of the 6,000 troops involved would take six to ten days, he said. Syria has a total of 14,000 soldiers in the country.

Earlier, a peaceful Hezbollah-organised rally saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets of Beirut to show their support for the Syrians. The pro-Syrian Lebanon-based Shia Muslim organization, which maintains an armed militia in Lebanon, promised more rallies throughout Lebanon. According to Michel Aoun, a former Prime Minister of Lebanon, it appears that the turnout was artificially inflated, with Palestinian, Syrian, and other non-Lebanese groups attending, as well as with coercive tactics used by Syrian intelligence officials.

Lebanese opposing the presence of Syrian troops held counter-rallies just 300m away, with smaller turn-outs.

Syria has come under increasing political pressure to withdraw. U.S. President George W. Bush said in a speech today, "Freedom will prevail in Lebanon. All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair."

Lebanon plans to hold a general election in May.

Syrian troops and intelligence officers have been present in Lebanon since the country began a peace-keeping mission in Lebanon during the 1976, following the start of Lebanon's civil war. U.S. forces withdrew in 1984 after a suicide attack killed 241 Marines. Ever since, Syria has had a strong political hold on its neighbour.

United Nations Resolution 1559 requires the immediate and complete withdrawal of all Syrian forces from Lebanon. France, Russia, Germany, and Saudi Arabia have made similar calls.