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Rice on surprise trip to back labnon against Syria

Written by: Staff

BEIRUT, Feb 23 (Reuters) U S Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Lebanon today under tight security to show support for a government working to shake loose the influence of its former political master Syria.

''The sole purpose of the trip is to express support for the Lebanese people and the Lebanese government as they continue to try to recover fully their sovereignty,'' Rice told reporters as she flew into Beirut from Saudi Arabia.

Her visit comes as political tension is rising in Lebanon where the majority anti-Syrian coalition has launched a campaign to unseat President Emile Lahoud, a close ally to Damascus.

In a snub, Rice will avoid meeting Lahoud and suggested he should resign because of his links to the past when as recently as a year ago Lebanon was effectively run from Damascus.

''They need a presidency that looks forward not back and that defends Lebanese sovereignty but it is a decision that they will have to make,'' Rice said.

Due to security fears in a country where several anti-Syrian figures have been killed in recent months, Rice did not announce her trip before leaving earlier today from Saudi Arabia.

Hundreds of Lebanese troops and police patrolled the streets as Rice's heavily guarded motorcade drove in Beirut. U.S.

embassy vans repeatedly swerved, changing position to ensure her vehicle was always boxed in to help shield it from any attack.

INDEPENDENCE FOR SYRIA In a show of support, Rice was due to meet senior officials who are striving to establish their country's independence from Syria which until last year had thousands of troops based in its tiny neighbour.

She said that her visit was a signal that the international community stands with Lebanon against ''intimidation'' and stealth occupation.

Rice reiterated Washington's call for disarming anti-Israel Hizbollah guerrillas in line with U N Security Council Resolution 1559, but indicated there was no deadline for the government to do so.

''This is part of an evolutionary process that is going on in Lebanon and we have tried to be supportive of that process that the Lebanese themselves are carrying out,'' she said. ''But there is no doubt that 1559 is going to have to be implemented.'' Rice also said she would press for cooperation with a U N probe into the killing just over a year ago of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri which many people blame on Syria.

Chief U N investigator Serge Brammertz visited Damascus on Thursday for talks on Syrian cooperation with the inquiry, Lebanese security sources said.

Lebanese officials said Rice would hold talks with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh and anti-Syrian politicians including Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain ex-PM. She also met top Maronite Christian cleric, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir.

Rice would speak on the phone with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, another close ally to Damascus, but would not meet him.

Rice had held talks with the Lebanese president during her last visit to Beirut in July.

Reuters SHR RS1706

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