Syria 'commits' to Lebanon pullout
DAMASCUS, Syria (CNN) -- Syria, under mounting international pressure after a former Lebanese prime minister was killed in Beirut, has said it will withdraw troops from Lebanon in line with a 1989 Arab-brokered agreement.
However, a government official indicated Thursday there would be no immediate and total pullout as demanded by the international community.
The announcement by Syria, though a reiteration of long-standing policy, was the first government statement since the outcry against Damascus over the February 14 killing of Rafik Hariri.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem said the government was surprised at the "political and media escalation" over its plans to withdraw troops but pledged to cooperate with a U.N. envoy.
He added that Lebanon had to be ready "to fill the vacuum" left by the withdrawal of its troops.
"After a successful visit of U.N. envoy Terje Road Larsen to both Syrian and Lebanese republics, both Syrian people and government would like to express their utmost surprise to the political and media escalation that preceded (the) U.N. envoy's mission to implement U.N. resolution 1559," said Mouallem in a statement faxed to CNN.
"From this context, Syria would like to express that it is very keen to cooperate with (the) U.N. secretary general's envoy in order to achieve his mission in the best ways possible, and reiterates its commitment to implementing the Taif accord and other bilateral agreements between Syria and Lebanon.
"Therefore the important withdrawals that have taken place in so far and what will take place later will be in agreement with Lebanon based on the Taif accord.
"Syria finds that the acceleration of the withdrawal process necessitates the enabling of the Lebanese army and internal security to fill the vacuum that could result in a way not to disturb security in either Lebanon or Syria."
Mouallem also said Syria was eager to get to the bottom of an investigation into who assassinated Hariri.
He said Syria wanted to complete the investigation "in order to show the truth away from spontaneous accusations and irresponsible statements."
"Syria declares its willingness to offer any help Lebanon would request in the investigation it is conducting in order to uncover this crime.
"We would like to draw to the attention of local and international public opinion that the provocative behavior that some are adopting inside and outside Lebanon -- against Syria and Lebanon -- would lead to negative developments that would harm the interests of all parties concerned, especially the Lebanese side which has always paid heavy prices in times of crises."
Hariri, 60, was a popular politician and construction industry billionaire. He resigned as prime minister in October after parliament decided to extend the term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud for three more years.
Hariri had pushed for the withdrawal of Syrian troops deployed in Lebanon.
Lebanese opposition leaders have openly accused Syria of involvement in Hariri's death, an accusation both Syria -- and the pro-Syria Lebanese government -- have denied.
Hariri died in an explosion in Beirut's chic waterfront district -- a blast so powerful it left a 20-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep crater in the road and rained debris on the streets for blocks. Sixteen others were also killed.
On Monday, thousands of people packed the streets of Beirut to protest the presence of Syrian forces and the influence they believe Syria has on the Lebanese government. (Full story)