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 APRIL 26, 2005



Syrian troops leave Lebanon after 29 years of occupation (AFP)


Syria's 3-Decade Reign Ends at 1000 GMT, April 26, 2005


Syria's 3-decade reign of Lebanon came to an official end at a low-keyed farewell ceremony held by the Lebanese and Syrian army commands at the airbase of Riyak in the Bekaa Valley Tuesday.

The ceremonious occasion was held under the joint auspices of Lebanon's army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman and Syria's chief-of-Staff Gen. Aly Habib at 11 a.m. Beirut time, or 8 a.m. Greenwich Meantime.


The event lasted two hours and general Habib's motorcade was seen off at Lebanon's Masnaa border checkpoint at 1 p.m. Beirut time, or 1000 GMT. Syria's military intelligence chief in Lebanon Brig. Gen. Rustom Ghazaleh was among Gen. Habib's departing convoy into Syria proper. Not a single Syrian soldier had then remained on Lebanese soil.


Ghazaleh wrapped up the month-long Syrian evacuation by closing down his headquarters in the Bekaa town of Anjar Monday afternoon. He handed the keys of the building to its original Lebanese owner, turned over the town to the Lebanese army and rode a black Mercedes limousine to Damascus.


Ghazaleh, who was seen off by group of pro-Syria politicians in Lebanon, including the leaders of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and a Hizbullah representative, returned to the Riyak ceremony at midmorning Tuesday. But his iron-fisted rule of Lebanon is over and out.


The Lebanese army has declared Anjar off-limits to avoid potential friction between Syria's loyalists and Lebanon's opposition groupings in the town that has a predominantly Armenian population.


A barbwire checkpoint manned by Lebanese troops on foot and aboard an armored personnel carrier was set up under a poster of 'WELCOME TO ANJAR' in Arabic, English and Armenian.


But jubilant crowds took the streets of the neighboring towns of Chtaura and Jedita, waving Lebanese flags and lauding Lebanese troops as they fanned out in all Syrian-vacated bases Monday and Tuesday.


Beirut, Updated 26 Apr 05, 16:44


With Syrian troops gone, Lebanese dare to celebrate

April 26 2005   AFP

MASNAA, Lebanon - Lebanese danced in the streets, finally daring to celebrate the end of Damascus's three-decade military domination of their lives after the last Syrian soldier had crossed the frontier.

"We are happy," a jubilant Khaled Saleh told AFP. "We are celebrating freedom, sovereignty and independence."

Once they had made sure the troops and intelligence agents were really gone, gaggles of villagers, most of them men in the Sunni Muslim village of Madjal Anjar, brought out Lebanese flags and danced to traditional songs.

Someone brought out a pick-up truck equipped with loudspeakers and played songs popular with the opposition protestors whose nightly protests in Beirut since February were instrumental in forcing the final lifting of Syria's grip.

"Beirut is crying, Beirut is sad for its martyr," rang the lyrics of one of the songs, referring to five-time prime minister Rafiq Hariri whose assassination in a bomb blast sparked the outbreak of people power.

"Long live the opposition," chanted the revellers. "We can now say it out loud."

One group of villagers brought out a jar and smashed it on the ground, a traditional expression of good riddance to the unwelcome guest.

A noisy cavalcade of cars then paraded up and down the nearby main highway to the border blaring its horns.

Syria kept the whole of Lebanon under tight supervision during its 29-year intervention in its tiny neighbour but its grip was particularly firm here in the eastern Bekaa Valley hard by the border, from where the last troops left.

Saleh said his joy at seeing the back of the Syrian troops was tempered by his bitter memories of their depredations and his anger that some of those detained by them remained in Syrian jails.

"Our celebration will not be complete without the return of Lebanese detainees from Syria and the prosecution of the Syrian officers who kidnapped them," he said.

Fellow villager Itidal Abdel Rahman echoed his anger.

"We can now say it out loud -- the syrians stole everything from us, they even stole our jobs," she said. "We still have more than 10 men missing from our village. We want them back. We could not even ask about them before."

In a country where politics are frequently sectarian, it was perhaps not suprising that there should be so much rejoicing at the Syrian departure in a Sunni village that made no secret of its loyalty to its slain co-religionist Hariri.

The departing troops waved and flashed victory signs from their military transports but the villagers lining the highway did not return their greetings.

Stony faces met the soldiers' smiles until the last truck and jeep had left Lebanese soil.

Even in the military area of the border crossing, just a small gaggle of Lebanese supporters, most of them from Damascus-based factions like the Baath party, waited to bid the departing troops farewell.

Across the frontier, more than 2,000 wellwishers waving Syrian flags and portraits of President Bashar al-Assad as they gave the last convoy a heroes' homecoming.

"We have missed you, defenders of the homeland," said one banner brandished by the crowd which chanted its loyalty to the president. "With our blood and our soul, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar."


Lebanon enters new era with Syrian pullout

Farewell ceremony commemorates Syria's sacrifices amid popular jubilation


By Nayla Assaf

Daily Star staff

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

MASNAA, Eastern Lebanon: The Syrian Army and intelligence finally left Lebanon Tuesday, ending nearly 30 years of presence, and marking the beginning of a new era of Lebanese sovereignty.The final 12 green Syrian transport buses and scores of utility and armored vehicles crossed the Masnaa border just after midday as local Lebanese villagers danced with joy.

Tuesday's convoy carried the last of Syria's 15,000 troops out of Lebanon, thus completing their pullout in compliance with Resolution 1559.

The pullout came in response to intense international and local pressure triggered by the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri and was finalized a few short hours before the release of a report by UN chief Kofi Annan on Syria's compliance with 1559.

Many hope Syria's withdrawal, realized precious weeks ahead of crucial parliamentary polls to be held in May, will mark a new era in Lebanon's history.

Seconds before being ushered into a vehicle under heavy guard and crossing over the border, Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh, said: "We are going back to our country. Long live Syria."

Ghazaleh, who until yesterday was the symbol of Syrian dominance here, ended his reign with a solemn expression.

The withdrawal was preceded by a farewell military ceremony held on the nearby Riyaq Airbase, attended by military commanders from the two countries.

At the ceremony, the Syrian Army's chief of staff, Ali Habib, said: "We have accomplished the sacred mission of defending Arab Lebanon and its dignity."

He added: "Syria gave and will continue to give anything to protect Lebanon."

But, Habib said worldwide support for 1559 "is a blow to the credibility of the Security Council," which he noted has remained silent on other violations of its resolutions.

In a letter addressed to the UN, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said Syria "assures that it has applied, without delay, the part of Resolution 1559 that concerns it."

During the ceremony, a Lebanese officer prompted a group of soldiers: "We will not forget you at all," with the troop responding: "We will not forget."

Commanders then laid the cornerstone of a future monument that will commemorate the sacrifices of the Syrian military in Lebanon.

A special battalion of some 250 Syrian soldiers, the last troops to leave Lebanon, shouted: "We sacrifice our blood and our souls for you, oh Bashar!"

As a sign of appreciation, Ghazaleh and Brigadier General Assef Shawkat, President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, who was recently appointed as head of military intelligence, were both decorated with the Order of the Cedar.

In turn, Lebanon's army commander, General Michel Suleiman, was also awarded the Syrian Medal of Merit. No Lebanese politicians were present at the ceremony.

The withdrawal comes in the aftermath of a national uprising against Syria's presence here, with hundreds of thousands of Lebanese staging a series of protests in Downtown Beirut to denounce Damascus' role in Lebanon and its alleged responsibility for Hariri's assassination.

Although Syria had reduced the number of troops here from an estimated 40,000 during the civil war to some 15,000 earlier this year, its influence in Lebanon continued to grow and be marred by unprecedented levels of corruption.

Hundreds of reports of killings and disappearances carried out by Syrian hands have also plagued the Lebanese, both during and after the country's bloody civil war.

Minutes after the last Syrian military vehicle crossed the border, youths from nearby villages gathered at the crossing carrying Lebanese flags and anti-Syrian banners. As they danced and clapped with joy, they shouted slogans demanding the release of Lebanese detainees from Syrian prisons.

Adib Farha, a political and economic analyst who attended the farewell ceremony, said: "This ceremony is almost surreal," adding: "It is difficult to believe the Lebanese Army would be thanking a foreign army that has overstayed its welcome."

Farha further said the continued Syrian presence here had been "humiliating for the Lebanese Army."

Syria sponsored the 1989 Taif Accord which ended the civil war, but later violated the pact by extending its presence that was to have ended in 1992.


Last Syrian troops leave Lebanon

Tuesday, April 26, 2005 Posted: 10:42 AM EDT (1442 GMT)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- The last Syrian soldiers have left Lebanon, surrendering to international and Lebanese popular demands and ending its 29-year military presence in its smaller neighbor.

Syrians awaiting them waved flags as the troops crossed the border. Earlier Tuesday, a formal ceremony marked the withdrawal in the Bekaa Valley.

About 400 Syrian and Lebanese forces assembled on the narrow parade grounds and were jointly reviewed by the chiefs of staff for each as dignitaries looked on.

The Syrian army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ali Habib, defended his country's nearly three decade stay, saying Lebanon was being left a stronger nation.

"It goes without saying that Syrian armed forces didn't enter Lebanon because they wanted to, but because of a call from the Lebanese government," Habib said. "Syria never had any desires or ambitions in Lebanon except to preserve it's unity."

Syrian forces controlled much of the country's affairs for 29 years, but pressure came for them to withdraw after former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated February 14 in a car bombing.

Many Lebanese people blamed Damascus for the killing, which sparked massive demonstrations calling for Syria to leave the nation.

Opposition groups also called on Lebanon's top security officials, all considered to be pro-Syrian, to resign.

On Monday, Lebanon's pro-Syrian security chief Jamil al-Sayyed quit after Syria over the weekend made its final push to jettison most remaining soldiers.

Less than three hours after the last Syrian soldiers were seen leaving, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that "all Arab Syrian forces have returned to Syria," a Foreign Ministry statement said.

Annan, who has dispatched a verification team, was expected to submit a report to the U.N. Security Council later Tuesday about Syria's compliance with the resolution.

A security council resolution adopted last September calls for the pullout of all foreign forces from Lebanon.

Syrians entered the country in 1976 as peacekeepers in the Lebanese civil war. By 1990, 40,000 Syrian troops remained.

Over the last 15 years, the number had decreased to 14,000.

Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Michel Suleiman said the nations will always be linked.

"Together comrades in arms against Israel ... a cooperative relationship in all areas together," he said. "To fend off all sectarianism and divisive forces. Our challenges are one. Our interests are one."

Key parliamentary elections are due to be held by May 29, two days before parliament's term ends.

Hariri was a key mover in getting a U.N. resolution to call on Syria to remove its troops and intelligence assets from Lebanon. Resolution 1559, passed last year, also called on Lebanon to disband guerrilla groups.

Hariri's death is at the center of an international investigation authorized by the U.N. Security Council.

A U.N. report released last month said the government of Syria "interfered" with governance in Lebanon in a heavy-handed way that was "the primary reason for the political polarization that ensued" before Hariri's death.