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Inside Politics

Bush: Syria must not interfere in Lebanon

Syrian ambassador: Allegations 'ridiculous'


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush said Friday that he was disturbed by reports that Syria might still have intelligence agents operating in Lebanon.

"Obviously, we are are going to follow up on these troubling reports and we expect the Syrian government to follow up on these troubling reports," Bush said during a media availability with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

Bush said the message of the United States and the United Nations is for Lebanon to be free, Syria must remove both military and intelligence personnel.

A U.N. investigation team will be sent into Lebanon to check into the allegations, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Friday. No date was set.

A senior State Department official told CNN that the United States has received what it believes are credible reports that Syria has drawn up a "hit list" of Lebanese political figures targeted for assassination in an effort to regain control of the country.

The official said "credible" Lebanese politicians in recent days contacted political officers at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and told them about the list, which they say includes Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt and other anti-Syrian politicians "who pose a threat to Syrian political hegemony" in Lebanon.

"We haven't seen the list and we don't know for sure it exists," the State Department official said. "But given that the Lebanese are scared, given the fact that a number of people to date have been assassinated and given that Syrian intelligence officers are still in Lebanon, we are convinced and have to give it credibility."

Jumblatt, in an interview with CNN's "Your World Today," said he and other Lebanese politicians had no "proper" evidence against Syria but because of the climate of uncertainty and the recent assassination of anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir, he was certain Syrian intelligence agents were "roaming around in the mountains and in Beirut."

Syrian Ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha has denied the latest Bush administration allegations, calling them "ridiculous."

Syrian forces controlled much of the country's affairs for 29 years, but pressure came for them to withdraw after former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated February 14 in a car bombing.

Many Lebanese people blamed Damascus for the killing, which sparked massive demonstrations calling for Syria to leave the nation.

Syria pulled its troops out of the country in April.

A U.N. team sent last month to verify the withdrawal said it "concluded, to the best of its ability, that no Syrian military intelligence personnel remain in known locations or in military uniform. But the team has been unable to conclude with certainty that all the intelligence apparatus has been withdrawn." (Full story)

Terje Roed-Larsen, the special envoy for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, plans to travel to Syria this weekend. Earlier this week, Annan said he was sending Roed-Larsen on an urgent mission to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Roed-Larsen has been the U.N.'s key envoy in trying to get Syria to comply with U.N. Resolution 1559, which called on Syria to remove all of its troops and intelligence assets from its neighbor.

The United States has said it is concerned about continued Syrian interference in Lebanon and has called on Syria to remove all of its intelligence operatives from Lebanon.

Sunday, the third round of a four-stage parliamentary election will be held in Lebanon. The Bush administration has asked the United Nations to send verification teams back to observe.

The senior State Department official said the United States does not plan to give any protection to the Lebanese opposition, nor has it been asked to do so.

The official said that it was unclear whether this list, if it exists, was drawn up by the Syrian government itself, or merely pro-Syrian actors in Lebanon. But he added, "we have to take Syrian involvement as a real educated possibility."

The story was leaked to major U.S. newspapers on Wednesday. The official said the Bush administration was going public with the information "to let the Syrians know there are those who know Syria's number, and we hope that acts as a constraint."

CNN's Kathleen Koch, Andrea Koppel and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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