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Syria: Troops leaving in 'months'

Assad responds amid push by Lebanese, US

BEIRUT -- Elated at forcing out Lebanon's pro-Damascus government, thousands of flag-waving, singing protesters crowded downtown Beirut yesterday, and President Bashar Assad of Syria indicated he would withdraw his 15,000 troops from Lebanon ''maybe in the next few months."

In London, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier renewed calls for all Syrian troops and intelligence agents to leave Lebanon.

Rice said Damascus must implement last year's UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which demands a complete and immediate pullout. ''The Syrians are out of step with where the region is going," she said.

''The Lebanese people have very courageously expressed their aspiration for freedom, their aspiration for a sovereign Lebanon. The Lebanese want to be masters of their own state," Barnier said.

Russia joined Egypt and Saudi Arabia yesterday in trying to persuade Syria to withdraw all its troops.

Assad told Time magazine that the troops would be out ''maybe in the next few months. Not after that." The troops were originally deployed during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war -- ostensibly as peacekeepers -- and Syria has held sway over Lebanese politics ever since.

The Lebanese opposition called for nightly protests to demand an end to Syrian control and the capture of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassins.

As politicians began searching for a replacement for ousted Prime Minister Omar Karami, opposition leaders planned to meet today to discuss how far to push their people power campaign and to ensure Damascus does not dominate Lebanon's new Cabinet.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are trying to persuade Syria to accept a timetable for a complete withdrawal by April, Arab diplomats said on condition of anonymity. Russia, a traditional ally of Syria's, also called for a withdrawal, saying Damascus must respect the UN resolution demanding that the troops leave.

A withdrawal is a key demand of the Lebanese opposition, the United States, and the United Nations.

About 2,000 protesters were in Beirut's central Martyrs' Square yesterday evening, their numbers growing from a few hundred in the morning. With many Lebanese awaiting political developments, protesters numbered far fewer than the 25,000 who demanded -- and obtained -- Karami's resignation.

''We will continue the sit-in every day until the Syrian army leaves Lebanon and until the truth is determined in Hariri's assassination," said Sami Makhlouf, an 18-year-old student waving Lebanon's red and white flag with the green cedar tree in the middle.

A Syrian official, speaking on condition of anonymity in Damascus, questioned whether it could occur within months, saying the Taif Accord was the basis for this matter.

The 1989 accord does not necessarily rule out a full withdrawal within months. It calls for a redeployment to eastern Lebanon near the border, with a full pullout subject to negotiation.

Syria last week said it was committed to withdrawing according to the Taif agreement and Lebanon's defense minister said then a pullback to the border area would come soon. Both governments indicated there would not be a full withdrawal for now, but that was before the government buckled in Beirut under popular pressure.

An opposition follow-up committee called on Lebanese to continue their ''independence uprising" with peaceful nightly sit-ins at Martyrs' Square. But an opposition meeting today was to decide whether to continue larger protests or pursue political means.

Troops lifted the cordon they had imposed around the city center Monday and Lebanon reopened after a one-day strike to protest Hariri's Feb. 14 assassination. Lebanon's dramatic developments -- reminiscent of Ukraine's peaceful ''Orange Revolution" and broadcast live across the Arab world, including in Syria where some people have satellite TV access -- could provoke a strong Syrian response. There are fears it also could plunge Lebanon into a period of uncertainty.

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