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. UN envoy calls for 'timely' Lebanon polls after Syria pullout
BEIRUT (AFP) Apr 04, 2005
UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen called Monday for "timely" elections in Lebanon following Syria's troop withdrawal which Damascus has promised to complete in less than four weeks.

On the ground, the Syrian pullout continued in what Roed-Larsen termed a "speedy process" while the Lebanese and Syrian army commands agreed on a withdrawal plan for the next phase running from April 7-30.

The special envoy held talks with Lebanese leaders on Syria's troop withdrawal under international supervision, a day after Damascus promised its last soldier would be out by the end of this month.

Roed-Larsen also insisted on "timely" elections as he started a three-day mission by meeting President Emile Lahoud and Foreign Minister Mahmud Hammoud.

The talks focused on the sending of a team of UN experts to verify the full withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence assets. "We are discussing now the practical modalities on how to do this," the envoy said.

Roed-Larsen said he and Lahoud also agreed on holding elections "in a timely fashion" for the sake of Lebanon's security.

A Western diplomatic source said earlier that the special envoy would call for elections to be held on schedule by May 31 when the mandate of the current parliament runs out.

The opposition, with international backing, wants a new government to be set up without delay, regardless of its composition or format, to organise the polls.

With the United Nations playing an increasingly prominent role in Lebanon, another item on the envoy's agenda was a planned UN commission of inquiry into the February 14 murder of former premier Rafiq Hariri.

Roed-Larsen announced in Damascus Sunday after talks with President Bashar al-Assad that Syria had pledged to complete its troop withdrawal by April 30, after a deployment of 29 years.

"The government of Syria has agreed with me that, subject to acceptance by the Lebanese authorities, a verification team will be dispatched in order to verify the full Syrian withdrawal," he added.

Roed-Larsen said the completion of the withdrawal would be "consistent with" UN Security Council Resolution 1559, passed last September, that calls for all foreign troops to quit Lebanon.

Syria first deployed troops in Lebanon as a buffer force during the early stages of the 1975-1990 civil war, turning into the dominant factor on the political and military fronts.

The UN envoy said and Lahoud also discussed "other requirements" in Resolution 1559, "particularly related to the presence of militias".

He was referring to the anti-Israeli guerrillas of the Syrian-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah, a potentially divisive issue which the Lebanese opposition has said can be sidelined at least until after elections.

On the ground, the Syrian army continued its evacuation of military posts in the Bekaa valley bordering Syria, correspondents said.

Forty trucks loaded with air defence batteries and other military equipment withdrew from positions in Rashaya and Halwa, in the southern Bekaa, and headed for the border.

Syrian troops also dismantled a field hospital in Shtaura, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Beirut.

Several military trucks, with posters of Assad in the windscreen, were also seen driving toward the Masnaa border post while Syrian and Lebanese soldiers were posted on the road.

In the nearby town of Anjar, where Syria's military and intelligence services have their Lebanon headquarters, dozens of Syrian soldiers in combat gear stood guard.

From a high of 40,000 during the civil war, Syria's deployment had been cut back in previous redeployments to a level of 14,000 troops when Hariri was killed. It has since thinned down to an estimated 8,000 men.

All rights reserved. 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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