International News

Christian group wants Syria troops to leave Lebanon
by Reuters, September 21, 2000
Posted: Saturday, September 23, 2000 00:55 am CST

BEIRUT, Lebanon (Reuters) -- The banned Lebanese Forces, the biggest Christian militia during Lebanon's civil war, wants Syrian troops to quit Lebanon but without jeopardizing the ties between the two countries, a senior member said on Thursday.

Tawfik al-Hindi, an adviser to jailed LF leader Samir Geagea, also told Reuters in an interview the anti-Syrian sentiment voiced by thousands of supporters at a weekend rally did not reflect LF policy towards Lebanon's powerful neighbor.

Syria, for years the arbiter of Lebanese politics, has some 35,000 troops stationed on its territory.

"We cannot control the feelings of the youths all the time but I can assure you that the anti-Syrian slogans do not represent our political attitude towards Syria," Hindi said. "We want to maintain the special ties Lebanon has with Syria."

On Sunday, the LF held its biggest rally in six years in Mount Lebanon, the Christian heartland. The event, a mass in memory of militiamen killed in the war, rapidly turned into a protest against the Syrian presence in Lebanon.

Several Lebanese opposition groups, mainly Christians, have called for a Syrian troop withdrawal since Israel ended its 22-year-old occupation of south Lebanon in May. On Wednesday, Maronite archbishops reiterated that demand.

Hindi said his group did not want to get into a confrontation with Syria over the pullout.

"It is wrong to look at the issue of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in an aggressive light," he explained. "If such withdrawal is to be discussed it must be on a friendly basis that preserves the special relations between the two countries."

Syria's role in Lebanon began after civil war broke out in 1975. It has controlled Lebanese politics since the war ended in 1990 with its powerful military presence.

The LF was once a close ally of Syria's arch-foe Israel. It was disbanded after the war and officially banned in 1994 after a church bombing that Geagea was suspected of masterminding.

Geagea was later convicted of many crimes, including the assassinations of several Muslim and Christian leaders during the war, and was given several life terms. Since then, dozens of LF officers have been arrested. Hundreds have fled the country.

Geagea's followers say he has been treated unjustly compared to other Lebanese war-lords with blood on their hands, many of whom have served as ministers in post-war governments.

Christians see Syria as Weak
Hindi said the wave of anti-Syrian sentiment, and the return of some Christian opposition figures such as former President Amin Gemayel from self-exile, stemmed from the perception that Syria's local and international standing had been weakened.

He listed the Israeli pullout from Lebanon, the death of President Hafez al-Assad in June and the stalling of Syrian-Israeli peace talks as contributing to the impression that Damascus was not as powerful as it used to be.

"All these factors put Syria in a very crucial regional situation that might continue to isolate it," he said.

Earlier this year, U.S. President Bill Clinton failed to persuade Assad to resume peace talks with Israel after a summit meeting in Geneva. Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, where Syria calls the shots, weakened its leverage in any negotiations.

Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years, died a month after the withdrawal and was succeeded by his son Bashar, a youthful eye doctor who has promised reforms but is a political novice.

"These events caused cracks in the Syrian presence in Lebanon that made it possible for the opposition to pass through and make some headway," Hindi said.

He said Syria was still in control of Lebanon and that Damascus could secure Geagea's release.

"Geagea is a national and political case not a judicial one. He will only be released when Lebanon regains its independence and sovereignty."

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