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Syrian Withdrawal a Matter of Timing, Lebanese Official Says - 2004-10-06

Thursday, the United Nations Security Council is expected to discuss the Secretary-General's report on Lebanon and Syria's compliance with the U.S. and French-sponsored resolution calling for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Both governments have rejected the resolution as interference. Lebanese officials say it is a question of timing.

U.N. Resolution 1559 calls on Syria to remove troops it has kept in neighboring Lebanon for more than two decades. The world body also urges Lebanon to disband all irregular militia and to hold presidential elections on time.

Last week, Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported neither country has complied with those demands. The meeting this week is to decide what action the Security Council will take.

Just before the U.N. resolution was passed, Lebanon's parliament extended the president's term another three years, sparking a minor revolt in the cabinet. Several members resigned amid complaints of Syrian meddling in the decision.

On troop withdrawal, Damascus and Beirut say the it will be done, but not right now.

In an interview with VOA, Lebanese Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares it is a matter of timing.

"We accept that these things should take place, ultimately," he said. They [U.N. council members] question what do you mean by ultimately, put an agenda. We said we can't do that. It all depends on regional development, on general atmosphere in our country and to our discussions with Syria, which is governed by mutual agreements."

Syria first sent more than 40,000 troops into Lebanon in 1976, in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent civil war. The 1989 agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war also required Syria to pull its troops out of the country.

Syria has gradually reduced the troops stationed in Lebanon to about 15,000. Last month, several thousand were redeployed but not withdrawn.

Many Lebanese politicians have long opposed what they consider Syrian meddling in Lebanese matters. But Mr. Fares says Syria's military presence still provides security and stability during the country's recovery.

"Our economy is starting to pick up. Our finances are much better," he said. "And, we do not want to take any gamble in our security and stability. But we said yes, neither us or Syria wants to stay in Lebanon forever. Neither us or the resistance movement wants to stay on forever, but it's a matter of timing."

Syria also insists on a military presence in Lebanon as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues and peace talks with Syria and Lebanon are stalled.

Mr. Fares says he is cautiously optimistic the U.N. Security Council's review of the situation will produce a lenient approach that does not try to impose an immediate timetable for compliance with its demands.