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Full Syrian withdrawal questioned

Lebanese walk past a Syrian soldier guarding a Syrian convoy leaving Lebanon last month.
Military Intelligence
Kofi Annan

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Syria has fully withdrawn its uniformed forces from Lebanon, except for one area where the border is disputed, but Syrian intelligence operatives may still be in the country, according to a report Monday from a U.N. verification team.

That conclusion was reached despite areas where questions remain.

The report from the U.N. mission set up by the Security Council to verify the Syrian withdrawal said the U.N. team "concluded, to the best of its ability, that no Syrian military intelligence personnel remain in known locations or in military uniform. But the team has been unable to conclude with certainty that all the intelligence apparatus has been withdrawn."

After a luncheon with Security Council ambassadors Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters: "In principle, Lebanon should be free of all foreign forces today."

However, Annan said there were still "conflicting claims" over an area between Syria and Lebanon -- Deir Al Ashayr near the border with Syria in the east -- where the border has not been "fully demarcated."

The U.N. report says, "the team found no Syrian military forces, assets or intelligence apparatus in Lebanese territory, with the exception of one Syrian battalion deployed near Deir Al Ashayr."

The report says the status of the forces in the Deir Al Ashayr area "will be clarified once the two governments have concluded a border agreement."

The U.N. team was also unable to verify withdrawal from an area called Qoussaya, which the U.N. says is a "Palestinian-controlled area in the eastern hills of the central Bekaa Valley, not far from the border with Syria" where the team was denied access.

In a widely reported incident, the U.N. team tried to approach the camp on May 4 but was ordered by a guard to leave and "despite assurances from the team's Lebanese escorts, the guard cocked his weapon to deny the team access" and fired warning shots into the air as the team left.

The report also notes that in some locations previously occupied by the Syrian military intelligence, including the "Hotel Beau Rivage" in Beirut, the "Villa Jaber" outside Beirut and the "American School" in the Tripoli area, "cells were found where it was apparent that prisoners had been held."

Despite the open questions left by the report, the U.N. team -- which began its work on May 1 -- concludes that no further verification would be needed "at this stage."

Because what the report calls the "clandestine" nature of intelligence activities, a U.N. official working on the issue said, "you can't verify further."

But he said, the withdrawal was a hopeful sign for the Lebanese. "It is kind of a message -- you are now getting the destiny in your hands, grab it," he said.

The demand for withdrawal was included in a September 2004 U.N. resolution that also calls for the "disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias" -- widely referred to by diplomats and U.N. officials as Hezbollah.

The resolution also refers to "the extension of the control of the government of Lebanon over all Lebanese territory."

There are no deadlines set for either of those goals.

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