Syria starts packing

The once-feared Syrian intelligence agents vanished from Beirut and large parts of Lebanon on Wednesday, but not before repainting the jail in the basement of their headquarters.

Almost all their intelligence offices in north Lebanon and the mountains east of Beirut were abandoned, and 150 to 200 agents moved to the eastern Beka’a valley.

At the main intelligence building in Beirut a bulldozer demolished two guard posts and trucks loaded with office equipment drove away. Lebanese security forces stood guard outside the building.
A woman who was allowed in described 10 cells in the basement. “They had been freshly painted in a baby-blue colour and the doors had been taken off,’’ she said. “The cells had tiled floors and tiny windows. I saw the word ‘freedom’ written in Arabic in one place. “The offices had been stripped bare, apart from a ceiling fan and a desk.’‘

The remaining pictures of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and his late father had gone from the area around the building. Where one giant portrait had stood, protesters put up smaller posters of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister assassinated last month.

Stalemate in the formation of a new government continued this week, increasing the risk that the parliamentary elections, due in May, may be postponed. On Monday Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, Mahmoud Hammoud, announced that Syrian troops would not withdraw completely until after a joint meeting of senior military officers on April 7.

The meeting would set the “duration, time and location in these matters’‘, Hammoud said, after talks with the United Nations envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in Beirut. It was the first definitive word from Syria to declare a date for withdrawal. — Â