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French Version

Israel eyes peace with Lebanon as Syria completes pullout

UN verification team expected within days to ensure troop and intelligence services withdrawal

As the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon packed to leave with his country's remaining troops Monday night, Israel expressed hope the withdrawal would pave the way to peace with Beirut. "We hope such withdrawal will open the path to peace with Lebanon with whom we have no territorial conflict," said Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom.

But, the Israeli official added the situation remains "delicate," expressing doubt the withdrawal would be complete.

He said: "We are not entirely sure that the Syrians ... have withdrawn their intelligence services."

Shalom noted Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's close ties to Syria, in addition to Syria's support for the Lebanese resistance group Hizbullah.

He added: "Hence, Lebanon has [only] cut the umbilical cord with Syria."

But, measuring his words, Shalom said: "Now that Lebanon is being liberated, there exists the possibility that the authentic national forces in this country will see that it is in their interests to live in peace with Israel."

The foreign minister's comments came as the highest ranking Syrian intelligence officer quit his Lebanese headquarters in the border town of Anjar Monday, virtually completing the pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

According to security sources and witnesses in the area, Rustom Ghazaleh, Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, left for Damascus Monday, but is expected to return Tuesday to take part in a farewell ceremony for Syrian forces.

The sources said a token number of some 200 Syrian soldiers remain in Lebanon to take part in Tuesday's ceremony at Riyyak military airbase, hours before an expected UN progress report on Syria and Lebanon's implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559.

The resolution, issued in September 2004, primarily calls for a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.

Lebanese troops took over Monday the last Syrian checkpoints and a base in the town of Chtaura, witnesses added.

Syrian agents were seen burning documents, painting over graffiti and demolishing walls at the intelligence base before leaving in buses carrying portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Local residents welcomed the Lebanese troops as they took position, waving the country's flag and showering them with flowers and rice.

It was also reported the military road linking the two countries will be closed after the farewell ceremony.

According to a Syrian official in Damascus and on condition of anonymity, "Within the next few hours, all the troops will be out of Lebanon."

He added: "What will be left are those who will take part in the official farewell on Tuesday."

Syrian troops worked nonstop over the weekend to dismantle their positions and head for the border.

Witnesses said Syrian troops were seen bidding farewell to shop owners in the town of Anjar near the Masnaa border crossing and where the Syrian Army and intelligence command in Lebanon has been based for decades.

A UN verification team is expected in Lebanon within the next few days, following its visit to Damascus Tuesday, where it is expected to verify the Syrian troop and intelligence forces' withdrawal.

According to UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, the team will be comprised of Brigadier General Elhadji Mouhamadou Kandji of Senegal, the deputy military adviser in the Department of Peace-Keeping Operations (DPKO); Colonel Ian Sinclair from the U.K., the COS of the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus; and Commander Kari Olavi Makinen of Finland, currently in the Missions Operations Service, DPKO.

He added UN chief Kofi Annan expected Lebanon and Syria to "fully cooperate with the UN team and provide it with the necessary support and assistance to carry out its task."

Annan had overridden the United States' objections to delay the report on Syria's progress for a week, until Tuesday, when the UN verification team will arrive in Damascus. The team hopes to obtain from Syrian officials maps of Syria's abandoned positions and final reports on the status of its military and intelligence presence in Lebanon, a UN official said.

Another UN team will arrive in Beirut Wednesday to make preparation on the ground for a UN commission due to investigate the murder of former Premier Rafik Hariri in a February 14 bombing in Beirut.

Syria, whose forces entered in Lebanon early on in the 1975-90 civil war and dominated the country for a subsequent 29 years, had already drastically reduced the number of troop in Lebanon from 40,000 some five years ago.

Syria maintained some 15,000 troops in Lebanon before it began its final pullout on March 8, under intense international pressure and Lebanese protest following Hariri's assassination.

Syria had vowed in late March to complete its withdrawal by April 30 but sped up the pullback in a move seen to be aimed at timing the pullback to coincide with the release of Annan's report.

Beirut,04 26 2005
Jessy Chahine
The Daily Star
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