Syrian troop build-up worries Lebanese officials

Other News Materials 22 September 2008 22:16 (UTC +04:00)

A Syrian troop build-up on the northern border with Lebanon has worried Lebanese security officials, despite Damascus insisting that the move is solely to stop smuggling in the region.

"Our reports from near the Abboudieh, northern Syrian-Lebanese border indicated that around 8,000 Syrian special forces have been deployed in the region," a high-level Lebanese security official told Deutsche Presse-Agentur, dpa.

"The Lebanese authorities have already asked Syria for clarification, and they were told that the measures were related to the increase in the smuggling activities, and to Syrian internal security measures," he said.

But sources close to anti-Syrian ruling majority leader Saad Hariri expressed fears that Syria was aiming to re-enter Lebanon.

On September 6, Hariri accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of trying to use unrest in north Lebanon to engineer a return to military control of the country.

"Those who export terrorism to northern Lebanon do not have the right to fear the rise of extremism in Lebanon," Hariri was quoted as saying then.

"(The Syrians) want to use the situation in Tripoli as a pretext to involve themselves in Lebanese affairs and use it as a means for their military and security to return to Lebanon," Hariri added.

"The Lebanese clearly remember who sent Fatah al-Islam to Nahr al- Bared and to the north, and who has - and continues to - financed terrorist activities in other regions," Hariri said.

The Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli was the scene of a 15-week battle last year between the army and Fatah al-Islam, which adopted an ideology inspired by al-Qaeda.

At least 23 people have been killed since violence erupted in May in Tripoli between backers of the Lebanese opposition led by the Shiite movement Hezbollah and Sunni supporters of the anti-Syrian majority.

Damascus was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005 after three decades of military and political domination of its smaller neighbour following the assassination of billionaire former premier Rafik Hariri. But it continues to wield influence through its allies in Beirut.

Supporters of the Syrian regime in northern Lebanon feel that the Lebanese fears are exggerated.

"The Syrians are simply taking precautionary measures to protect their border," said northern Lebanese political analyst Khader Taleb. "There is no real evidence of Syrian interference in the tense situation in the north.

"On the contrary, Syria's allies in Lebanon have received decisive advice to avoid further escalation in the north.

"Those who are fabricating a problem with Syria at a time when the political situation in the entire region is changing are moving against the current."

But military experts who requested anontmity doubted a country would deploy 8,000 or 10,000 troops just to stop smuggling on its borders. More clarification was needed from Syrian authorities.