Assad said interested in Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon
The Arab League chief said Monday that Syria will "soon" take steps to withdraw its army from Lebanese areas in accordance with a 1989 agreement. The announcement by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa came after a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad. In a statement to reporters following a meeting with Syria's Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara, Moussa said President Assad talked about the "fraternal relations between the two countries," asserting Assad’s great interest in the outcomes of the underway investigations of the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri saying "It is in all parties’ interest to hold investigations in this issue as soon as possible."
"Assad stressed more than once his firm determination to go on with implementing the Taif agreement and achieve Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in accordance with this agreement," Moussa said. "Syrian withdrawal is part of Syrian policy and will see steps in this direction very soon," Moussa quoted Assad as saying.
Moussa's comments came as thousands of Lebanese gathered on the Beirut seafront chanting "Syria out" as pressure mounted on the pro-Syrian government a week after the killing of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
The mass rally was called by Lebanon's opposition, AFP reported. Waving the red and white scarves and banners of what the opposition is calling its "peaceful uprising for independence," demonstrators shouted "Syria out" and "Down with the government" as they marched on the site where Hariri was killed on February 14.
Lebanon's government has vowed to cooperate with UN investigators to find his killers but rejected a full international inquiry.
Security was tight for the demonstration with anti-riot police and soldiers out in force, but it was proceeding peacefully through the streets of Beirut.
At 1055 GMT the demonstrators observed five minutes of silence to mark the exact moment of the bombing on the Beirut seafront.
Opposition lawmakers scored a victory in parliament on Monday, winning an agreement for a debate on the situation which could see a vote of no-confidence in the government of Prime Minister Omar Karameh. Before the demonstration began, about 30 opposition lawmakers wearing the white and red scarves stood on the steps of the Parliament building in downtown Beirut to protest an attempt by the legislature to hold a session to discuss election law. According to The AP, the opposition has said it will refuse to participate in any debate before a special session is held to discuss the assassination.
Lebanese security forces were on alert to guard against the opposition demonstration turning violent, while some schools in the capital have been closed. "What I fear in this tense situation, any foreign party could infiltrate into the ranks of security forces or the students to carry out any act," Interior Minister Suleiman Frangieh said.
Thousands of people continue to converge each evening on Martyrs' Square, where Hariri is buried, to shout "Syria Out" and "Down with the government," despite warnings from the authorities that they will start banning illegal gatherings.
In Europe, US President Bush had sharp words for Syria, calling on leaders in Damascus to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. "The Lebanese people have the right to be free, and the United States and Europe share an interest in an independent, democratic Lebanon," Bush said.