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Syria gets tough on Lebanon's drug trade

Syrian troops occupying Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley have decided to put an end to the lucrative drug business that has made the country a major world source of narcotics. For decades, vast fields of hashish were cultivated and harvested rather openly in outlying regions of the northern Bekaa. The annual harvest of thousands of tons became a major element in the Lebanese economy.

When Syrian forces entered the Bekaa in 1976, they tolerated the growth of marijuana, but discouraged cultivation of poppies. But in recent years, poppies have been grown in large areas and used for opium and heroin production, to the alarm of international drug control officials.

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Now that seems to be a thing of the past. In December, visitors to the Bekaa say, mayors, village heads, and schoolteachers from the area were summoned by Syrian military officers to Baalbek, the regional capital, and told that drug cultivation was being banned indefinitely.

``We're telling you now, so don't complain if we burn your crops - just don't make the investment in the first place,'' the officers said, according to a village headman who attended the meeting. ``You'll have to find another way of making a living.''

The order has apparently been obeyed. Recent visitors to the Bekaa say that fields where drug crops used to grow are lying neglected. Opium is now virtually unobtainable in Lebanon, and prices reportedly have tripled.

Why did the Syrians suddenly decide to stop the drug business, after tolerating it - and, some say, profiting from it - for so many years?

According to those who attended the Baalbek meeting, the Syrians implied it was being done at European request, in an effort to clean up Syria's Western image as a state that sponsors terrorism and pursues anti-Western policies.

But other sources believe that the United States was directly involved in the move. One senior Lebanese militia official in the Bekaa believes Washington paid Damascus $250 million to put a stop to the trade. This could not be confirmed by sources in Washington.

If the step does stem from some sort of understanding between Syria and the US, it could have political significance, given the poor state of official relations between the countries.

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Some informed sources say the Syrians themselves privately portray the ban as part of a broader understanding covering the entry of Syrian troops into west Beirut in February and Syrian efforts to release Western hostages.

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