Lebanon waits for Syria to make good on promise

A United Nations team vowed on Friday to be impartial in probing in Lebanon the murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, as Lebanon waited for powerful neighbour Syria to begin a promised troop redeployment.

A day after Lebanese Defence Minister Abdel Rahim Mrad announced an imminent pullback of Syrian troops to the eastern Bekaa Valley, on the border with Syria, no troop movements on the ground were seen at midday on Friday.

Damascus is under international pressure and from Lebanon’s opposition to withdraw from its smaller neighbour, where it maintains 14 000 troops and dominates the political scene.

Amid that pressure, the Syrian-backed government in Beirut is bracing for a possible parliamentary no-confidence vote on Monday, which could bring to a head a crisis sparked by Hariri’s assassination on February 14.

The United States, Europe and the UN have put pressure on Syria to pull its troops and an unknown number of secret service agents out of Lebanon following Hariri’s killing, which the opposition has blamed on the pro-Syrian regime and Damascus.

The authorities in Beirut have denied any responsibility in the killing and agreed to cooperate with the UN commission of inquiry, but have rejected a full international probe.

Irish police team

Three senior Irish police officers, who arrived in Lebanon late on Thursday at the request of the UN, vowed to work with “absolute impartiality and professionally”.

Peter FitzGerald, deputy commissioner of the Irish national police forces, told reporters on Friday that the team will draw up a report within four weeks to allow UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to report back to the UN Security Council on time.

He welcomed the “pledge of the [Lebanese] government’s cooperation with our mission. I look forward to working closely with the Lebanese authorities and to hearing about their progress in the investigation of this terrible crime.”

FitzGerald was flanked by two other Irish police officers—Chief Superintendent Martin Donnellan, head of the national bureau of criminal investigation, and Superintendent Pat Leahy, head of national support services.

“We will be joined in the next day or two by other colleagues with expertise in law and political affairs,” said FitzGerald.

The UN team started talks with Lebanese Interior Minister Suleiman Frangieh and was expected later on Friday to visit the site of the bomb blast that killed Hariri and 17 others on Beirut seafront.

Troop pullback

After a weekly Cabinet session on Thursday, Information Minister Elie Firzli reiterated a pledge that the “Lebanese judiciary authorities will not hesitate to assist, cooperate and coordinate” with the team.

Firzli also confirmed an imminent Syrian troop pullback.

Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mrad said on Thursday afternoon that the troops will move into the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon near the border with Syria “within hours”.

It is unclear if this action, in line with the 1989 Taef accord that ended Lebanon’s civil war, will lead to a full withdrawal after nearly three decades, as demanded by UN Security Council Resolution 1559 passed in September.

The resolution, sponsored by Paris and Washington, demands the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon, a dismantling of militias and full respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Thursday that Damascus is ready to withdraw more troops in agreement with the Lebanese government, but is worried about a security vacuum and cautioned against “provocations”.

The US gave a cautious welcome to the reports that Syria is prepared to redeploy its troops in Lebanon toward their common border.

Asked about the move, Julie Reside, a US State Department spokesperson, said that Resolution 1559 calls unequivocally for a complete withdrawal.—Sapa-AFP

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