Syrian troops on Monday finalised their withdrawal from Lebanon, ending a 29-year military presence, as Brigadier General Jamil el Sayyed, the most powerful pro-Syrian security chief in Beirut, officially stepped down.
Mr Sayyed had already announced last week that he would stop exercising his functions during a forthcoming international probe into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister killed in a massive blast on February 14.
In March, a United Nations inquiry into the killing of Mr Hariri had criticised the local investigation into the assassination and said security chiefs should step down if a credible probe was to be conducted. The UN Security Council is preparing to send in a team of investigators. Mr Sayyed, head of Lebanon's general security department, said he was resigning because of “changes in the country's politics”.
His main point of contact, Rustom Ghazaleh, the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, will be gone by Tuesday, after a ceremony in the eastern Bekaa valley organised by the Lebanese army to bid farewell to Syrian troops.
The general security department is officially in charge of passports, censorship and border controls but the pro-Syrian official became perhaps the most powerful political player in the country. He pulled strings from behind the scenes, nominating officials in ministries and demanding the departure of others. His resignation was a key demand of the Lebanese opposition who blamed him and his Syrian masters for the Hariri killing.
Over the weekend, dozens of Syrian military convoys crossed the border, ferrying tanks, artillery guns and equipment. They left behind them a token force which will participate in Tuesday's ceremony. A UN team will be in Beirut this weekverifying the withdrawal in compliance with UN resolution 1559, ahead of a report on the pull-out by Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN envoy.
The report will not reflect the complete withdrawal as the verification process will still be continuing. It is also likely to point out remaining demands on Syria, including the respect of Lebanese sovereignty, particularly in the elections scheduled for next month.
Lebanese newspapers on Monday hailed the withdrawal, with the French daily L'Orient le Jour saying: “A few hours from now, and a new era will start in Lebanon.” But for some Lebanese, their country's Syrian chapter is not over yet. Relatives of people believed to be held in Syrian jails have been holding a sit-in near the UN mission in Beirut.
“We are here to indicate to the UN that the implementation of resolution 1559 will not be complete until the issue of Lebanese detainees in Syrian jails is resolved,” said Ghazi Aad, the co-founder of the Support for Lebanese in Detention and Exile association.
Since Syrian forces first entered Lebanon in 1976 as peacekeepers, thousands of Lebanese have been imprisoned in Syria. They include Christian militants, Sunni clerics and students. The last significant release of prisoners was in December 2000 when 46 Lebanese returned home. Beirut and Damascus deny there are any more prisoners in Syrian jails but the families at the sit-in say they have a list of 280 names.
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