Syria Announces Pullback Timetable

The presidents of Syria and Lebanon on Monday announced that the withdrawal of Syrian troops to Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley will be completed by the end of March but deferred a final troop pullout until later negotiations.

An announcement after the meeting of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said that after Syrian troops complete their withdrawal from northern and central Lebanon to the east, near Syria's border, military officials from the two countries will agree within a one month period on the duration and size of the Syrian military deployment remaining in the Bekaa.

After an agreed upon duration, the statement said, the two governments will "agree to complete the withdrawal of the remaining forces."

The agreement was vague about a complete withdrawal from Lebanon, not setting a specific timetable. This could fall short of international demands that Syria completely pull its troops from its eastern neighbor.

The announcement said the redeployment to the Bekaa, with a foothold in the high central mountains, was according to the 1989 Taif Accord that outlined Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon.

A joint military committee will be designated to draw an agreement in a "maximum" one-month period from the date of withdrawal to the Bekaa "to define the size and duration of the presence of the Syrian forces" and establish the relationship between these forces and Lebanese authorities.

"At the end of the agreed upon duration for the presence of Syrian forces," the announcement said, "the governments of Syria and Lebanon will agree on completion of the withdrawal of the remaining Syrian forces."

The United States issued a strong statement of dissatisfaction with a speech by Assad on Saturday, in which he initially announced the pull back.

"As President Bush said Friday, when the United States and France say withdraw, we mean complete withdrawal — no halfhearted measures," the statement said.

In Syria, news of the troop redeployment has been greeted positively, reports CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer. Syrians seem to believe that, despite the stern tone of the Bush administration, the U.S. will now be hesitant to impose sanctions.

Syria has kept troops in Lebanon since 1976, when they were sent as peacekeepers during that country's 1975-1990 civil war. When the war ended, the troops remained and Damascus continued to wield decisive influence with Lebanese officials. Lebanon has been gripped by four weeks of political turmoil, set off by the assassination of a popular former prime minister.

The 1989 Arab-brokered Taif Accord called for Syria to move its troops to the Lebanese border and for both countries to then negotiate the withdrawal.

The September U.N. resolution, drafted by the United States and France in September, called on Syria to withdraw forces from Lebanon, stop influencing politics in the country and allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections as scheduled.

Thousands of Lebanese have staged almost daily protests since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, which many in Lebanon blame on their pro-Syrian government and its Syrian backers. Both Lebanon and Syria deny involvement.

Hariri, 60, resigned last year amid opposition to a Syrian-backed constitutional amendment enabling his rival, President Emile Lahoud, to extend his term in office.