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UN Envoy to Meet with Lebanese Political Leaders

A senior U.N. diplomat says Syria has promised a total withdrawal of military and intelligence personnel from Lebanon as demanded by the U.N. Security Council.

The announcement follows talks between U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the northern Syrian town of Aleppo.

Mr. Roed-Larson told reporters the withdrawal will come in two stages.

"The first stage will see the relocation of all military forces, and the intelligence apparatus, to the Bekaa Valley by the end of March, 2005,” he said. “Further, a significant number of these Syrian troops, including intelligence, will withdraw fully from Lebanon into Syria during this stage. The second stage will lead to a complete and full withdrawal of all Syrian military personnel, assets, and the intelligence apparatus."

Mr. Roed-Larsen did not reveal the timetable for the second stage, but said he would give details to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan next week in New York.

The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution last year telling Syria to leave Lebanon. The United States is demanding that Syria complete its pullout ahead of Lebanon's parliamentary elections planned for May.

Lebanese opposition leaders are particularly insistent that Syrian spies leave the country, accusing them of manipulating politics with strong-arm tactics.

Syria began pulling its 14,000 troops back to the eastern Bekaa Valley this week after a speech by President Assad announcing the redeployment. Convoys of Syrian troops also have begun crossing the border with Lebanon to return home.

According to Lebanese defense officials, Syria has pulled all of its troops out of northern Lebanon, though some intelligence posts in the region are still manned.

Syria has been under intense international pressure to get out of Lebanon since the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese opposition supporters blame Syria for the killing, though Damascus denies involvement.

Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 under an Arab League mandate to quell a civil war, and at its height Syria had about 40,000 soldiers in Lebanon.