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As protests heighten, Syria begins pullback in Lebanon

MDEIREJ, Lebanon -- Syrian soldiers loaded trucks with furniture and other supplies and drove east from the Lebanese mountain posts they have held for decades, the first signs of a redeployment to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley announced yesterday. But no deadline was set for their complete withdrawal, and Washington rejected the pullback as insufficient.

Lacking a timeline, the plan also was unlikely to satisfy the Lebanese opposition and the international community, which have demanded that all 14,000 Syrian soldiers leave the country.

More than 70,000 Lebanese shouting "Freedom! Sovereignty!

Independence!" thronged Beirut in the biggest demonstration of anti-Syria anger that has fueled recent street protests. The demonstrators waved Lebanon's cedartree flag and thundered, "Syria out!" "Yes, for withdrawal to the Bekaa, but, yes, first to the full withdrawal behind the Lebanese- Syrian border," opposition legislator Walid Eido told the protesters.

The demonstrators marched to the site of the Feb. 14 bombing that killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri and touched off the angry but peaceful street protests that drove Lebanon's pro-Syrian government to resign a week ago. Many Lebanese accuse the Syrian government and their former government of responsibility for Hariri's death; both deny involvement.

Earlier yesterday, President Bashar Assad of Syria and his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahoud, met in Syria's capital, Damascus, to outline plans for shifting Syrian troops closer to the border by the end of March. But they were vague on the timing of a complete withdrawal from Lebanon.

Opponents of the Syrian presence are calling for demonstrations to continue. One group raised a banner yesterday that read, "Today we have one target: to liberate our land."

But in a sign of the divisions in Lebanon, the militant Islamic group Hezbollah urged a counterdemonstration today to show loyalty to Syria and denounce international interference.

Syria has had troops here since 1976, when they were sent as peacekeepers during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. When the war ended, the troops remained, and Syria has dominated Lebanon's politics since.

The United States, France, Russia, and the United Nations Security Council have firmly demanded that Syria withdraw all troops and stop interfering in the affairs of its smaller neighbor. Yesterday, President Bush telephoned President Jacques Chirac of France to discuss the situation, said Jerome Bonnafont, spokesman for Chirac.

Washington wants a full withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents before Lebanese parliamentary elections expected in April and May.

"We stand with the Lebanese people, and the Lebanese people, I think, are speaking very clearly," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "They want a future that is sovereign, independent, and free from outside influence and intimidation."

McClellan called the troop redeployment announced yesterday "a half measure."

Assad and Lahoud said Syrian troops will first pull back from northern and central Lebanon to the east, near Syria's border. Then, military officers from both countries will have a month to decide how many Syrian troops should stay in the Bekaa Valley and how long.

After a negotiated time frame, the two governments will "agree to complete the withdrawal of the remaining forces," the announcement said.

In Washington, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, told CNN that Syria would withdraw all troops within a few months.

A Security Council resolution in September called on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, stop influencing politics here, and allow Lebanon to hold a presidential election as scheduled.

The statement issued by Assad and Lahoud said they respect all UN resolutions, but added that all "should be implemented without double standard," an apparent reference to UN resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian and Syrian lands occupied since 1967.

In the hours after the Syrian and Lebanese leaders met, a scattered movement of Syrian Army vehicles began in central Lebanon.

As many as 15 trucks -- carrying equipment, ammunition, weapons, mattresses, and personal belongings -- drove up the snaking highway through the mountains toward the Bekaa Valley.

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