Sunday, December 18, 2005

U.N. investigator says Syria behind Hariri murder

BEIRUT, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Detlev Mehlis, the outgoing head of a U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, has directly blamed "Syrian authorities" for the first time.

In comments published in Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat on Saturday, Mehlis said some countries wanted him to rewrite a report that implicated Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies in the Feb. 14 murder, but that he had refused.

Asked if he thought the Syrian government was behind Hariri's killing, Mehlis said: "yes, the Syrian authorities."

He declined to comment on the seniority of officials involved, but U.N. investigators questioned five Syrian officials in Vienna earlier this month. They postponed the questioning of a sixth Syrian official who is also a suspect.

Neither the United Nations nor Syria have named the officials but political sources say they include Lt. Gen. Rustom Ghazali, Syria's former intelligence chief in Lebanon, and his aide, Jamae Jamae.

Damascus, the main power-broker in Lebanon after the 1975-1990 civil war, has denied involvement in the truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others, dismissing the U.N. findings as politically motivated.

In a 25-page report submitted to the U.N. Security Council on Monday, Mehlis said new evidence reinforced his earlier contention that Syrian officials were involved in the killing.

The German investigator said Syria had stalled the probe but that cooperation had improved this month.

"There was a demand by some (countries) to rewrite the report, but this is extremely stupid," Mehlis said.

"We will continue the investigation along the same path even though some people want to derail the investigation, but this will not happen."

Mehlis was not available for comment on the interview.

The 15-member Security Council decided this week to extend the mandate of the inquiry for another six months, but Mehlis himself will return to Berlin as soon as a replacement is named.

It also demanded that Syria respond "unambiguously and immediately" in areas the commission found necessary, but did not expand the probe to include other attacks in Lebanon over the past 14 months, as the Lebanese government had asked.

Hariri's killing prompted a local and international outcry that forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April and ushered its critics into parliament in summer elections. But a string of politically-motivated murders has ensued.

Mehlis told Asharq al-Awsat he did not see any link between the assassination of anti-Syrian lawmaker Gebran Tueni on Monday, and his earlier questioning by U.N. investigators.

But he said he was leaving partly due to security concerns.

"There is also the tight security that I was subjected to for a long time. The situation is surely difficult and that is why I had such tight security," Mehlis said.

"I believe that if someone has to go through these security measures for seven months, it's time for them to go back home."

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