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Annan Expects Full Syrian Withdrawal from Lebanon Before Elections

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says he expects all Syrian troops to be out of Lebanon by May. Mr. Annan set the deadline after a briefing from his Middle East envoy, who just returned from a visit to the region.

After a meeting with special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen Thursday, Secretary-General Annan issued a statement setting a firm timetable for the pullout of all Syrian forces from Lebanon. Spokesman Fred Eckhard read the statement.

"The secretary-general said he expects the withdrawal of all Syrian troops, including the intelligence apparatus and military assets, to take place before the Lebanese parliamentary elections," said Mr. Eckhard.

The voting is scheduled for mid-May. The secretary-general's statement also stressed that the elections should be seen as free and fair.

Special envoy Larsen has just returned from a mission that took him to Europe, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. He told reporters Thursday his briefing to the secretary-general had focused mainly on last Saturday's meeting in Aleppo with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He said he had reached an understanding with the Syrian leader on a two-phase withdrawal. The first phase, he said, is already complete.

"There is a commitment from the president of Syria to me that he will withdraw all Syrian troops and intelligence operatives and assets to the Bekaa Valley," added Mr. Larsen "Two-thirds of them will stand on the Lebanese side, one third will be put into Syria proper by latest April 1. And on the ground what we are seeing is that by and large this commitment is already fulfilled."

Mr. Roed-Larsen says the second phase would involve formation of a joint Lebanese-Syrian military committee in early April to decide on a timeline for a complete removal of all Syrian military and intelligence assets from Lebanese soil.

"…Which would lead to a point, if it happens, where Syria related to these two points in the requirements, would have met their obligations under Security Council resolution 1559," he added.

Mr. Larsen said the secretary-general expects the second phase to be completed before Lebanon's mid-May elections. He said there is broad international support for the deadline.

Resolution 1559, approved last September, calls for a Syrian pullout from Lebanon, but does not set a timetable. It also calls for disarmament of militias in Lebanon.

Mr. Larsen says he plans to return to the region early next month, and will file a draft report, which Secretary-General Annan is to deliver to the Security Council April 19th.

Lebanese military sources say at least 4000 Syrian troops have already gone home, completing phase one of the withdrawal. As many as 10,000 more remain on Lebanese soil.