BEIRUT - Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said Syrian troops might pull out of Lebanon in the next few months, as Lebanese protesters rallied in central Beirut demanding Syria get out of their country.
Syria, which has 14,000 troops in Lebanon, has come under increasing pressure as a result of demonstrations following the assassination last month of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.
"It (withdrawal) should be very soon and maybe in the next few months. Not after that," Assad said an interview conducted on Monday and published by Time magazine on its website on Tuesday.
"I could not say we could do it in two months because I have not had the meeting with the army people. They may say it will take six months," he added.
Two weeks of unprecedented protests forced the pro-Syrian government of prime minister Omar Karami to quit on Monday, leaving officials with a complex search for a new head of government.
Assad would not give a definite timetable for pulling out his army, saying it depended on technical rather than political considerations.
Syria has recently said it is willing to redeploy its troops to the Bekaa Valley near the border in line with the Taif agreement that ended Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.
Damascus also faces growing international pressure. The United States has accused Damascus of assisting anti-US insurgents in Iraq and backing anti-Israeli Palestinian militants as well as meddling in Lebanon.
Assad's remarks indicated for the first time that Syria was considering a quick total withdrawal from its neighbour -- as stipulated by a UN resolution and demanded by the United States and France.
The Taif Accord called for a redeployment of Syrian troops to eastern Lebanon, followed by agreement on a timetable for a full withdrawal.
"You need to prepare when you bring your army back to your country. You need to prepare where you will put the troops," Assad said.
He said security in Lebanon and the protection of Syria's own borders needed to be taken into consideration.
One influential US senator said a withdrawal in "a few months" as suggested by Assad might not be acceptable to the international community.
"The world community is going to insist upon a rather rapid acceleration of that timetable," Richard Lugar, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee, told reporters after a meeting with US president George W Bush.
Karami said before his resignation that a hasty Syrian troop withdrawal could plunge Lebanon back into civil strife.
Market fears of a political vacuum put the Lebanese pound under intense pressure, forcing the central bank to dig into its foreign exchange reserves to defend the currency.
US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice welcomed what she called moves to restore democracy in Lebanon.
"Events in Lebanon are moving in a very important direction," she said in London. "The Lebanese people are starting to express their aspirations for democracy ... This is something that we support very much. "
Rice and French foreign minister Michel Barnier repeated calls for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
Washington and Paris, co-sponsors of security council resolution 1559 demanding an end to foreign interference in Lebanon, called for general elections planned for May to be free and fair and suggested international assistance.
A few hundred protesters returned to Beirut's central Martyrs' Square on Tuesday where thousands celebrated the resignation of Karami's government a day before.
They vowed to keep up their protests until Syrian troops leave the country.
"Our hopes are growing regarding Syria's exit after the resignation of the government," Patrick Risha, a 22-year-old political science student said.
Most opposition protesters are Maronite Christians, who have long opposed Syria's role in Lebanon, Druze and some Sunni Muslims. Shi'ite Muslims, Lebanon's largest community, have mainly stayed away from the anti-Syrian rallies.