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Ambassador: Syrian troops to leave Lebanon soon

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A bomb tears through a shopping center in a Christian area of Lebanon.
Rafik Hariri

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Syria's ambassador to the United States said his government is planning a quick withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, likely before summer.

"Right now nobody, even in Damascus itself, knows the actual timetable," Imad Moustapha told an audience Wednesday at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

"We believe that it will happen sooner than you might expect."

Moustapha said Syrian and Lebanese military officials would meet at the beginning of April to draft a timetable for withdrawing troops.

"We will withdraw as soon as possible. The sooner, the better. And we're not talking about two or three months. We will do this very, very quickly," he said.

But he noted, Syria will withdraw "in a phased, organized way so that we will not create a vacuum" and further destabilize Lebanon.

Last week, Syria began moving its 14,000 troops to the Bekaa Valley near the border and promised to bring all the troops and intelligence officials across the border into Syria later on.

"There is no hesitation about this, as the political decision has been taken," Moustapha said. "We are withdrawing every single official from Lebanon, whether he is a regular army soldier, or whether he is in the security or intelligence forces."

On Tuesday U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in Algeria for the Arab League summit, said that Syrian President Bashar Assad had agreed to present by April a firm timetable for withdrawal. Annan said he expected for it to occur before the Lebanese parliamentary elections in April and May.

The United Nations last year passed U.N. Resolution 1559, calling for the full withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence forces. Annan has said he wants Damascus to carry through with its obligations.

The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has resulted in massive demonstrations against Syria's troop presence in Lebanon and the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami's pro-Syrian government.

Hariri was the chief opposition figure in Lebanon who spearheaded the push for Syrian troops and intelligence officers to leave Lebanon. That movement culminated in the largest demonstration in the nation's history last week, with an estimated 500,000 to one million people cramming the streets, chanting, "Get out Syria!"

The demonstration came one month to the day after Hariri's February 14 assassination.

Moustapha said, "No other incident has caused [such] terrible damage to Syria in the past 30 years."

"Those that killed Hariri, what they really wanted to do by killing him is exactly what we have seen, creating a rift between Syria and Lebanon," he said.

Moustapha said once Syrian troops are out of Lebanon, Damascus could focus on political reforms promised by Assad.

Among those reforms, he said, are Syrian plans to release all remaining political prisoners by June. The government, Moustapha said, has already started to release groups of political detainees over the past several years.

"I am not so proud that Syria has political detainees, just like you have in Guantanamo Bay," he told the Georgetown University audience.

From CNN's Elise Labott

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