25 April 2005

2005: Syrian troops leave Lebanon

Syria has announced that all of its military forces have left Lebanon in line with United Nations demands.

It informed the UN of the withdrawal after a parade of about 200 Syrian soldiers in the Bekaa Valley to mark the end of the 29-year deployment.

Soldiers received medals and shouted support for Syria's president before marching off to a Lebanese army band.

Pressure for Syria to leave grew after the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri in February.

Military intervention began in 1976
30,000 troops in Lebanon during 1980s, 14,000 by 2005
Syrian forces helped end Lebanese civil war in 1990 and maintain peace
Calls for Syrian withdrawal increased in 2000 after Israeli pull-out from southern Lebanon
UN resolution calling for foreign forces' withdrawal in Sept 2004

Damascus has denied any role in the death of Hariri who was killed by a car bomb in Beirut but the event prompted giant protests calling for the Syrians to go.

BBC Beirut correspondent Kim Ghattas says the Syrians stayed on long after Lebanon's civil war ended and Damascus effectively became the political master of its tiny neighbour.

Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said "a new political era in the relations between the two brethren countries" had started with the completion of the troop withdrawal.

Pierre Gemayel, a Christian Maronite opposition MP, said: "We consider this a first step towards regaining Lebanon's full and real sovereignty."

'Honourable farewell'

In a letter to the UN, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara announced:

Scuffle following a protest in central Beirut
Police and relatives of prisoners held in Syria scuffled in Beirut

"The Syrian Arab forces stationed in Lebanon, at the request of Lebanon and under an Arab mandate, have fully withdrawn all their military, security apparatus and assets to their positions in Syria on the 26 April, 2005".

He was responding to UN Security Council Resolution 1559 which calls for the pullout of all non-Lebanese forces.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is due to deliver a report on the implementation of the resolution later on Tuesday and a UN team is due to assess whether or not the pullout has been completed.

Syria's troops in Lebanon - which at one point numbered up to 40,000 - were scheduled to leave completely by 30 April.

The formal ceremony marking the completion of the Syrian withdrawal started around mid-morning at the Rayaq air base in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Syrian and Lebanese army chiefs attended.

Wreaths were laid in honour of Syrian soldiers who had died in Lebanon, while the Lebanese army vowed to remember what it described as its own martyrs.

Marching bands played both countries' national anthems before official speeches praising the role of the Syrian army in Lebanon.

Our correspondent says that after all the anti-Syrian protests that Lebanon has witnessed recently and the pressure that Syria has been under, this was a way to give the Syrian army a last honourable moment in Lebanon.

Beirut protest

In the Lebanese capital Beirut, relatives of Lebanese prisoners held in Syrian jails scuffled with the army and beat parliamentarians' cars with Lebanese flags during a demonstration demanding the release of their family members.

Two protesters were seen being loaded into a Civil Defence ambulance while two others received first aid at the scene of the protest.

Associated Press reported that at one stage two shots were fired by a bodyguard of one member of parliament.

Nobody was injured by the gunfire but the bodyguard was seen hitting a protester with his pistol butt.-(bbc)

Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.