October 13, 2005

Syrians bury minister, blame Lebanon “smear campaign”

By Suleiman al-Khalidi

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi
Kanaan's body was laid to rest in his northern home town in a
low-key funeral on Thursday, and officials said a Lebanese
"smear campaign" had pushed him to commit suicide.

About 1,000 relatives and villagers walked behind the
coffin, draped in a Syrian flag, in the village of Bhamra where
black banners hung from some buildings, witnesses said. Kanaan
was buried in a family cemetery.

Kanaan killed himself on Wednesday, officials said, three
weeks after he was questioned by U.N. investigators probing the
assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik

Damascus Attorney General Mohammed al-Loji said forensic
examination and a probe of his office concluded that Kanaan
shot himself in the mouth with his own revolver.

He said Kanaan's assistant heard a faint shot and called
the office manager who entered to find him lying on the floor
behind his desk, still breathing, with his pistol in his hand.

The 63-year-old major-general died in hospital.

Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara, speaking to reporters
from a Damascus hospital from where Kanaan's body was taken for
burial, said a "media smear campaign," not the government,
pushed Kanaan over the edge.

"When the media uses words, it's like using bullets," he
said, hinting at an anti-Syrian campaign by Lebanese media.

The death of Kanaan, Syria's top official in neighboring
Lebanon for 20 years until 2002, occurred just over a week
before U.N. investigators are due to present their findings on
Hariri's killing in a truck bomb blast in Beirut in February.

Already under pressure from the United States, which
accuses it of allowing fighters to enter Iraq, Syria has grown
increasingly nervous over Lebanese and international charges
that it is linked to Hariri's death.

President Bashar al-Assad said in a CNN interview conducted
shortly before the apparent suicide that Syria was not involved
in Hariri's death and that he could never have ordered it.

However, if the United Nations concluded Syrians were
involved, they would be "traitors" who would face an
international court or the Syrian judicial process, he added.


An ambulance adorned with flowers had taken Kanaan's body
from the Shami hospital in Damascus to his birthplace of
Bhamra, in northern Syria.

Senior military and security officials, with Prime Minister
Naji al-Otari and Shara, paid their respects before the body
left in a convoy of cars for its final resting place.

In Muslim tradition, suicide victims get low-key funerals.

Many of the villagers at the funeral blamed the Lebanese
media for his death, saying a smear campaign against him led to
his suicide. "We blame the Lebanese press for his death. They
exerted moral pressure on him," said Marina Rashed, a relative.

About an hour before he died, Kanaan called Voice of
Lebanon radio apparently to give his last testimony, denying a
news report that he had shown investigators photocopies of
checks signed to him by Hariri and defending Syria's role in
Lebanon, where it kept troops for 29 years until April.

Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi Aridi rebuffed the
charges, saying Lebanon was a country where the media was free.

"This continued accusation of the Lebanese media ... is
something we cannot accept," he told reporters in Beirut.

But at Kanaan's grave it was difficult to miss the strong
ties that once linked Kanaan to Lebanon.

On his tombstone there were medals he had received from the
Lebanese army, witnesses said. An old rifle that had insignia
showing it was a gift from the Hizbollah guerrilla group was
also placed there.

The village of about 2,000 inhabitants lies in the mountain
heartland of the Alawite sect, 330 km (200 miles) from
Damascus, and 4 km from Qordaha, home town of the ruling Assad

Syria was the main power broker in Lebanon after the end of
its 1975-1990 civil war. It was forced to relinquish its grip
amid an international and local uproar over Hariri's killing.