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Syria Says 'Last' Soldier Withdrawn from Lebanon


Syrian soldiers applaud as they cross the Lebanese border point of Masnaa in the Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut

Syria says it has withdrawn its last soldier from Lebanon, following an official ceremony near the Lebanon-Syria border. The event symbolically brought to a close Syria's 29-year military occupation.

A Lebanese army band played Syria's national anthem, and troops from both countries stood at attention, in a ceremony meant to honor Syrian troops before bringing down the curtain on their 29-year occupation.

An elite Syrian army unit had remained in Lebanon, overnight, after Syria's top commander, General Rustom Ghazali, handed over his headquarters, Monday.

Wearing their trademark red berets, the soldiers chanted slogans to honor their president, Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian Army Chief of Staff General Ali Habib spoke first, insisting that "Syria had accomplished a sacred mission" in defending Lebanon and would do so again if the need arose. Lebanese Army Commander General Michel Suleiman thanked Syria for preventing the partition of Lebanon during its 1975 to 1990 civil war.

A statue was also unveiled in memory of the 12,000 Syrian soldiers that died on Lebanese soil, during the course of their 29-year presence.

The farewell ceremonies took place amid heavy security at an old Lebanese Air Force base in the eastern Bekaa Valley, near the international border.

Syria's final 300 soldiers crossed the border in the Lebanese town of Masnaa. As they left, Lebanese army troops sealed the military road that had long permitted Syrian troops and officials to enter Lebanon without going through customs.

Eyewitnesses say dozens of overjoyed Lebanese citizens danced and chanted, in several border towns, after the Syrian departure. Syrians across the border danced and waved flags to welcome the soldiers home.

A U.N. team has been sent to the region to verify the withdrawal.

Anger over the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, blamed by many Lebanese on Damascus, triggered large protests in Beirut that brought down the pro-Syrian government. U.N. and U.S. pressure intensified on Damascus until President Bashar al-Assad announced on March 5 that he would withdraw his forces.