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Syria's Ex-Overlord in Lebanon Found Dead

October 13, 2005|John Daniszewski and Rania Abouzeid | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — The former Syrian proconsul in Lebanon shot himself to death in his office Wednesday, Syria's state news agency reported, though some foes of the Damascus government suggested the death might have been less than voluntary.

The reported suicide of Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, who for two decades was Syria's overlord in Beirut, comes less than two weeks before the scheduled publication of a United Nations investigation of allegations that Syria was involved in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Kenaan was among several Syrian officials interviewed last month by U.N. investigators.

The death of the interior minister might allow the government of President Bashar Assad to tag him as the fall guy if Syrian involvement in the Hariri killing is confirmed, according to one theory raised by some observers Wednesday.

Kenaan would be "made a scapegoat. A big scapegoat, but it doesn't ring right," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel.

About an hour before he died, Kenaan defended himself against recent corruption allegations and closed a radio interview by saying, "I think it will be the last statement I make."

He was found about 11 a.m. in his office in a pool of blood after apparently shooting himself through the mouth with a silenced handgun, reported the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA.

Assad, who rarely meets with Western journalists, granted an interview Wednesday with CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. Speaking in English, he asserted his government's innocence of any involvement in the death of Hariri.

In the interview, Assad said that killing the billionaire former leader of Lebanon was against his principles and against Syria's interests. If any Syrians were involved without his knowledge, he said, "then it is treason.... They should be punished."

Hariri was killed Feb. 14 by a car bomb as his motorcade traveled through central Beirut. The attack launched a series of massive demonstrations aimed at ending Syrian dominance over Lebanon. The protests led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April after 29 years in the Levantine country and the election of an anti-Syrian parliament.

But Damascus is still suspected of keeping a finger on Lebanese affairs through its longtime ally, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. Opponents also charge that Assad's government has been behind unsolved assassinations of public figures deemed to be anti-Syrian.

President Bush said Wednesday that it was "important for Syria to understand the free world respects Lebanese democracy and expects Syria to honor that democracy."

Assad, who has been in office for five years, is entering a delicate period, with the U.N. report on the cause of Hariri's death looming and mounting U.S. pressure to stop foreign insurgents crossing from Syria into Iraq.

But the government, particularly under Assad's father, longtime ruler Hafez Assad, also developed a reputation for canny ruthlessness when it came to protecting its interests in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Kenaan, 63, was a clean-cut, hard-bitten military officer regarded as a powerful member of Syria's "old guard" who served under the elder Assad. Like the Assad family, he was a member of the minority Alawite sect, a Shiite Muslim faction that dominates political life in Syria and forms the elite of its armed services and intelligence apparatus.

Last month, the U.N.'s chief investigator of the Hariri assassination, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, questioned Kenaan and other top Syrian intelligence officials. Lebanese newspapers reported he showed the U.N. team extensive files on corruption in Lebanon, including checks he received from Hariri. Kenaan denied the reports.

Mehlis is scheduled to report his findings to the U.N. Security Council on Oct. 25. Last week, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to extend the mandate of Mehlis' inquiry until mid-December. U.N. chief spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Tuesday that Annan was still considering the request.

Kenaan spoke to the Voice of Lebanon radio station Wednesday morning to deny the allegations that he had been enmeshed in large-scale corruption and bribery during his tenure in Lebanon. The charges had been leveled the day before by Lebanese broadcaster New TV.

The TV station, which claimed to have knowledge of Mehlis' investigation, charged that Kenaan had been taking money from Hariri and said the Syrian had raised that as proof that he would not have been party to Hariri's killing.

Hariri "had at the time given me a $10-million check," New TV quoted Kenaan as allegedly telling U.N. investigators. "We were making money from [Hariri], so how could we possibly kill him and close the flow of his riches?"

In the radio interview Wednesday, Kenaan called the New TV report a lie.

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