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Syrian intelligence abandons Beirut

Pullout by agents spurs celebration

BEIRUT -- Syrian intelligence agents ended their 18-year presence in Beirut yesterday, and emboldened residents of the capital came forward to celebrate. Some kissed the ground and others wept, wandering the basement cellblock at the headquarters and describing torture there.

Joumana Tabbara, a woman who lives across the street, waved from her balcony as she watched the agents pack up and go.

After they left, she went to the basement jail, holding a picture of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister and icon of the anti-Syrian opposition who was killed in a bombing last month. She leaned against the doorway of a cell and started crying. She refused to say why.

Others were forthright. ''It's a feast and great joy for me today because they're gone. I consider that Lebanon was born today with its liberation from Syrian forces," said Imad Seifeddine, a 47-year-old blacksmith.

Seifeddine said he was imprisoned by the Syrians for four years in the 1990s. ''They tortured me with beatings, electric shock," he said.

For most Lebanese, military intelligence agents were the face of Syria's long domination of their country. Though Syria until recently had some 14,000 soldiers in Lebanon, it was usually the agents who carried out arrests and set up roadblocks, and to whom Lebanese had to turn to get commercial permits and settle disputes.

But while Syrian soldiers abandoned bases to pull back to eastern Lebanon over the past week, the intelligence offices lagged behind.

The seaside headquarters was the last remnant of Syria's military in the Lebanese capital. Intelligence agents also left branches in the central mountain town of Hammana and in two northern towns, Halba and Qoubaiyat, near the Syrian border. Agents were also packing up in Tripoli, their last remaining post in western Lebanon.

Since Syrian soldiers left Beirut in 2000, the main intelligence headquarters in Lebanon has been in the Bekaa Valley town of Anjar.

Intelligence agents and officers left the Beirut headquarters in buses and sedans yesterday.

Lebanese entered the compound and raised Lebanese flags and portraits of Hariri, whose Feb. 14 assassination sparked unprecedented anti-Syrian protests and brought international pressure on Syria to withdraw.

Swirling around the compound, they played folk songs, hoisted flags, and painted over a metal gate that had the red, white, and black colors of Syria's flag. Several pro-Syrian activists showed up and scuffled with the celebrants, but they left after the Lebanese army intervened.

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