Syrian troop levels in Lebanon have dropped sharply, and the remaining 4,000 soldiers are likely to be out within 10 days, Lebanese officials said Tuesday. The hurried exit comes amid a deepening political crisis and renewed tensions along the border with Israel.
Lebanese looked toward a future without Syria's once-mighty military force as they marked the 30th anniversary of the start of their 15-year civil war, the conflict that drew Syria's troops into the country.
That future is looking unclear, however. Elections that the opposition expects will end pro-Syrian parties' control of parliament are threatened with postponement because of a weekslong deadlock over forming a government.
The nation of 3.5 million has witnessed dizzying changes in the two months since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the spark that united Christians and Muslims in mass anti-Syrian protests and increased international demands on Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon.
The accelerated Syrian pullout means the troops will be out of Lebanon a week before an April 30 target date set by Syrian President Bashar Assad under pressure from the United Nations.
"In my view, they will have gone home in a week or 10 days," Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
From a force that stood at 14,000 troops in February, about 4,000 remain, a senior Lebanese military officer told AP on condition of anonymity.
The swift pullout removes the forces that were the foundation of Syria's power in Lebanon ever since the military crossed into Lebanon in 1976 during the first year of the civil war.
Lebanon has had foreign armies on its soil since the civil war that began in 1975.
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