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U.N. chief urges Syria to pull out of Lebanon

Also, he presses for the disarmament of Hezbollah militia

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UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan pressed Syria on Friday to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and criticized Lebanon's Syrian-backed president, Emile Lahoud, for seeking to extend his term beyond the constitutional limit of six years. Annan also urged Lebanon to disarm Palestinian militants and Syrian-and-Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia that hold sway in southern Lebanon.

The U.N. chief's remarks were in a 17-page report asserting that Syria has failed to comply with a U.S.-and-French-sponsored Security Council resolution calling for free elections in Lebanon next month, the disarmament of armed militias, and the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the former French colony. "I cannot certify that these requirements have been met," Annan wrote. "The Syrian military and intelligence apparatus in Lebanon has not been withdrawn as of 30 September, 2004."

Syria maintains that it has redeployed 3,000 troops from camps south of Beirut to a Syrian stronghold in the Bekaa Valley, and that some have returned to Syria. Last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell confirmed after a meeting in New York with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa that Syrian troops had abandoned the camps, saying it "was a positive step."

But Annan said that the United Nations was not able to verify Syria's claims that its troops or intelligence agents have left the country. Annan also criticized Lahoud's efforts to extend his rule, saying "it has long been my strong belief . . . that governments and leaders should not hold on to office beyond prescribed term limits."

The report's release coincided with an assassination attempt in Beirut on a prominent Lebanese opposition figure, Marwan Hamadeh, who resigned as Lebanon's minister of trade and the economy last month to protest Lahoud's decision to seek to extend his term by three years.

While it remained unclear whether the remote-control bombing of Hamadeh's vehicle was related to his dissent, one Security Council diplomat said, "We think it's linked." State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, meanwhile, called on Lebanon to investigate the attack, which wounded Hamadeh. "To the extent that that concerns other countries," he added, the "same message would apply."

The Syrian government, which has more than 20,000 troops in Lebanon, has maintained political control over the former French colony since 1976, when it intervened at Lebanon's invitation to quell a civil war. The United States and France have accused Syria of pressuring Lebanon's political elites, sometimes with threats of violence, to rewrite Lebanon's constitution to ensure that Lahoud could serve an additional three years. The Lebanese cabinet and parliament formally amended the constitution to allow the continuation of Lahoud's rule.

Annan suggested that the chaos that preceded Syria's intervention has long passed and that Syria's military presence is no longer required. He also challenged claims by Syria and Lebanon that Israeli forces continue to occupy the small Shabaa Farms enclave in Lebanon, providing a justification for the presence of anti-Israeli Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. Annan maintains that Israel has withdrawn all its forces from Lebanon and that Shabaa Farms is part of Syria.