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Syria troops begin Lebanon pullback

AMMAN, Jordan -- Syria began dismantling a number of small army posts and pulling back hundreds of troops from positions near Beirut yesterday amid international pressure to end its long-standing military presence in Lebanon.

The redeployment affected about 1,000 of the roughly 20,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, but it could mark the start of a broader redeployment and eventual withdrawal of forces that have been there for nearly 30 years. It also appeared to signal a new willingness by the Syrian government to comply with international demands that it remove its forces from the territory of its smaller neighbor, an issue brought sharply into focus last month after Syria's intervention in Lebanon's fractious domestic politics.

Under pressure from President Bashar Assad of Syria, Lebanon's Cabinet agreed late last month to extend the term of Syria's hand-picked president, Emile Lahoud, who was scheduled to leave office in November.

Within days, the United States joined with France to win a UN Security Council resolution calling on Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon, cease meddling in its political affairs, and disarm groups in Lebanon classified as terrorist by the US that it has supported with arms and money in the past. But a day later Lebanon's parliament amended the constitution to allow Lahoud three more years in office, and several Cabinet members resigned in protest.

The UN resolution set a 30-day deadline for Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, to deliver to the Security Council an assessment of Syria's compliance. He is scheduled to do so on Oct. 2, and his report could determine what steps, if any, the council will take against Syria and Lebanon.

The redeployment, which followed several days of talks in Beirut between senior Syrian and Lebanese military officials, appeared to be a conciliatory gesture by the Syrians after weeks of denouncing the resolution as interference in Syrian-Lebanese affairs. Officials from both countries said the troop movements did not amount to a withdrawal, although they said it may eventually lead to the return of some troops to Syria.

''Lebanon is continuing its coordination with Syria in this and other fields to serve the interests of the two countries and two peoples," said Mahmoud Hammoud, the Lebanese defense minister, to reporters in Beirut.

Syria first sent troops to Lebanon in 1976 in an unsuccessful attempt to calm mounting sectarian violence. It has had as many as 35,000 troops in the country over the years. The 1989 Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war gave Syria until September 1992 to withdraw its troops, a deadline determined by the date of Lebanon's incorporation of the agreement into its constitution.

Many Lebanese and Syrian officials say the soldiers have helped Lebanon emerge from its civil strife. But a growing number of Lebanese believe that, after more than a decade of relative stability, the time has come for Syria to remove a military presence.

Although Syria has redeployed its forces in Lebanon several times in recent years, Lebanese political analysts said that doing so amid international pressure made yesterday's pullback the most significant to date. Farid Khazen, chairman of the political science department at the American University of Beirut, said the fact that this redeployment is occurring under UN scrutiny is more significant than its relatively small size.

''Of course, this should have happened back in 1992," Khazen said. ''Even though there were partial deployments before, today they come under completely different circumstances. This is no longer a Lebanese issue or a Syrian issue, but an international issue."

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