October 30, 2005

Syria launches diplomatic campaign to ease pressure

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid
al-Mualem was touring the Gulf on Sunday to drum up Arab
support on the eve of a United Nations meeting to discuss
possible sanctions against Damascus.

In an apparent effort to head off a tough draft Security
Council resolution backed by the United States and France,
Syria launched its own investigation on Saturday into the
killing of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

The inquiry, ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,
will question Syrian civilians and military personnel and
cooperate with a U.N. inquiry that has already implicated
senior Syrian officials in the February 14 assassination,
officials said.

Mualem delivered a letter to King Abdullah from Assad on
Saturday evening about Saudi Arabia's support at a meeting of
Security Council foreign ministers on Monday, which was
expected to demand Syria cooperate or risk economic sanctions.

"King Abdullah confirmed the kingdom stands by Syria's side
against the pressures it is being subjected to by some
international sides," Syria's state SANA news agency said.

It said Mualem told King Abdullah that Syria was willing to
cooperate with the U.N. team probing Hariri's murder and that
he would deliver messages to other Gulf states.

Assad discussed the issue with Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak during Mubarak's surprise visit to Damascus on Friday.

Egypt, which along with Saudi Arabia is a main U.S. ally
and power broker in the region, says it wants to defuse tension
between Syria and the United States.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara left for New York
on Sunday. He will meet U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and
other foreign ministers, SANA said.

Detlev Mehlis, leading the U.N. investigation, urged Syria
at a Security Council meeting last week to set up its own probe
and to cooperate fully with international investigators.

Syria denies involvement and dismisses Mehlis's report as
politicised, but is under intense international pressure.

The United States and France say they are confident that
Monday's meeting will adopt a tough Security Council resolution
against Syria, though Russia and China still have misgivings.

The draft threatens economic sanctions against Syria if it
does not cooperate fully with the U.N. probe and imposes a
travel ban and freeze on overseas assets of suspects.

The U.N. report found this month the decision to kill
Hariri "could not have been taken without the approval of
top-ranked Syrian security officials" colluding with Lebanese

It named senior Syrian security officials including Assad's
brother and brother-in-law and their Lebanese allies as
possible suspects in the truck bombing that killed Hariri and
22 others.

Syrian Justice Minister Mohammad al-Ghafari told SANA Syria
would investigate Syrians suspected of involvement and try any
who were proven with conclusive evidence to have had a role.