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Syrian Troops' Final Withdrawal Starts

More Syrian troops and military equipment were pulled out of Lebanon as a final withdrawal began Thursday.

About two dozen Syrian military trucks and buses, carrying hundreds of soldiers and equipment, were retreating toward Damascus in the evening, Xinhua correspondents witnessed on the main road connecting Damascus and Beirut.

All these vehicles, led by two military jeeps, passed the border checkpoint smoothly.

"We are glad that they are leaving," said a Lebanese security official at the border, who declined to be named.

Thursday's pullout, the second stage of a two-phase withdrawal plan unveiled by Syria in March, was decided by a joint Syrian-Lebanese committee Monday.

Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlullah said Damascus will complete the withdrawal before April 30.

"The Syrian pullout may take place well before the end of the month, just as it did for the first phase that was due to end by the end of March and actually wrapped up in mid-March," Dakhlullah told reporters.

"We have a timetable for the withdrawal and we will keep pulling out, unit by unit," he said, adding "the process involves all army troops and intelligence forces."

Syria, a major power broker in Lebanon, deployed 14,000 troops in its tiny neighbor in 1976 to intervene in Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

Under mounting international pressure and popular Lebanese opposition after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in February, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pledged to complete a full withdrawal before Lebanon's parliamentary elections due in May.

The withdrawal was within the framework of the 1989 Taif Accord which ended Lebanon's civil war.

UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Sunday he was informed by the Syrian leadership that 4,000 troops have returned to Syria while the rest were pulling back to the Bekaa valley.

According to Lebanese military sources, more Syrian troops have since then crossed the border.

(Xinhua News Agency April 8, 2005)

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