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U.N. Links Syria to Lebanon Slayings

Report says intelligence officials in both nations had a hand in the death of ex-premier Hariri. It also casts suspicion on the Lebanese president.

October 21, 2005|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials were involved in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, according to a U.N. investigative report issued to Security Council members Thursday.

The report also casts suspicion on Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, although it stops short of placing specific blame on individuals. Investigators recommended that the 10-week independent inquiry be continued, with Lebanese authorities taking the lead.

The chief investigator, Detlev Mehlis of Germany, said in the report that the decision to assassinate Hariri "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security official[s] and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services."

Hariri, who had grown increasingly discontented with Syria's influence in Lebanon, died Feb. 14 along with 22 others when a car bomb exploded near his motorcade as it headed to the parliament building in Beirut. The bombing dramatically increased international pressure on Syria, prompting it to remove its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon.

Witnesses interviewed by the U.N.-appointed investigative team said evidence showed that the killing had been planned for months, and that Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services had tapped Hariri's phones to glean his movements and contacts.

Mehlis delivered his much-anticipated findings to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Security Council on Thursday evening, a day earlier than scheduled. In Lebanon, the government braced for demonstrations by Hariri supporters or violence provoked by Syria's allies there in response to the report's findings.

Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad insisted that his country was "100% innocent" in the killing. But several high-ranking Syrian officials are implicated in the report, including Assad's brother-in-law, Gen. Asef Shawkat, and Rustom Ghazali, the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon at the time of the slaying.

Ghazi Kenaan, Syria's powerful interior minister and the former chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, died last week of a gunshot wound -- in what the Syrian government described as a suicide -- after being interviewed by the Mehlis team.

Mehlis said in the 54-page report that Syrian leaders must now clarify a series of "unresolved questions."

The U.S. and France have been considering a resolution that would penalize Syrian officials implicated in the killing, but diplomats said they wanted to digest the report's findings and consult with other members before deciding on the course of action. Mehlis will brief the Security Council on Tuesday.

"After an initial read, the results are clearly troubling," U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton said. "This will require further discussion among members of the international community."

The council will also consider a second U.N. report on Syria next week, verifying whether all Syrian troops and intelligence officials have withdrawn from Lebanon.

Mehlis' team has worked with Lebanese authorities and international forensic experts since June to piece together how and why Hariri, one of Lebanon's most popular politicians, was killed.

The assassination occurred against a backdrop of growing tensions between Lebanon and Syria, which had exercised considerable political influence in the neighboring country since it sent troops there in 1976 to support Lebanon's president in a civil war. Hariri sparked Syrian anger with his increasingly vocal criticism of Damascus' power in his country.

The conflict seemed to reach a head during a meeting between Hariri and Assad in August 2004, the report says, when the Syrian president informed Hariri that Lahoud's term as Lebanese president would be extended. When Hariri objected, Assad reportedly said he would "break Lebanon" over Hariri's head, Hariri's aide told the investigators.

A week later, on Sept. 2, the Security Council passed Resolution 1559, ordering Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, a move pushed by Hariri. That sparked a decision by senior Lebanese and Syrian officials two weeks later to assassinate Hariri, according to one Syrian witness residing in Lebanon, who claims to have worked for the Syrian intelligence services there.

In February, a couple of weeks before the slaying, the witness said, a high-ranking Syrian officer posted in Lebanon who had been involved in the planning told him that "there soon would be an 'earthquake' that would rewrite the history of Lebanon."

Zuhair Mohammed Siddiq, a Syrian former intelligence operative who was arrested this week in Paris, told investigators that seven Syrian officials and four senior Lebanese officials were involved in the plot to kill Hariri, and that they chose explosives favored by extremist Islamic groups in Iraq to throw suspicion in that direction.

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