December 15, 2005

UN extends Lebanon murder probe, chastises Syria

By Evelyn Leopold

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council voted
unanimously on Thursday to extend for six months the
international probe into the murder of a Lebanese leader and
told Syria it was not cooperating fully with investigators.

After a day of wrangling, mainly between Russia and Western
powers on how to characterize Syria's actions, the 15-nation
council expressed "extreme concern" that Syria had yet to
provide U.N. investigators "full and unconditional

The mandate for the probe into the death of a former prime
minister, Rafik al-Hariri, by a truck bomb in Beirut on
February 14 would have expired at midnight (0500 GMT). The
resolution extending it to June 15 was initiated by France and
co-sponsored by the United States and Britain.

The resolution also authorizes the U.N. commission to
provide technical assistance to the Beirut government
investigating a string of other politically motivated murders
or attempted killings in the last year.

Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who headed the U.N.
inquiry, on Monday released a 25-page report saying new
evidence had reinforced his earlier judgment that Syrian
intelligence officials and their Lebanese allies, were involved
in the killing.

He said Syria had stalled the probe but cooperation had
improved this month.

The Security Council resolution demanded that Syria respond
"unambiguously and immediately" in areas the commission found
necessary, without mentioning them.

Syria has vehemently denied its involvement or that it has
been slow to respond to requests from Mehlis, who will be
returning to his post in Berlin as soon as a replacement is

"We are fully confident that Syria is innocent," its U.N.
ambassador, Fayssal Mekdad, told reporters. "Syria would never
be behind these crimes. This is not our policy."

Commenting on the text, Mekdad said Syria had "many
friends" who rejected "threats and blackmail."

Russian Ambassador Andrei Denisov told the council Moscow
had proposed its own "more balanced" amendment but France and
the United States refused to remove unnecessary "negativism"
toward Syria.

"We continue to oppose unwarranted pressure on Damascus,"
Denisov said.

The assassination of Hariri, an opponent of Syrian
domination of his country, transformed Lebanon's political
landscape, prompting a pullout of Syrian troops after three

A string of politically-motivated attacks followed. On
Monday, a leading anti-Syrian journalist and lawmaker, Gebran
Tueni, and three others were killed by a car bomb in a suburb
near Beirut.

"We are making it clear to the government of Syria they
can't run, they can't hide," U.S. Ambassador John Bolton told
reporters before the vote. "The end game of this exercise is to
get to the bottom of the Hariri assassination and to bring to
justice anybody -- anybody-- responsible for it.

Lebanon had asked the U.N. investigation to cover other
terrorist killings since Oct 1, 2004, and for the United
Nations to form a tribunal of an "international character" to
try suspects.

But Russia, China and Algeria resisted the original text,
which would have expanded the investigation at the discretion
of the inquiry team. Instead the resolution authorizes the U.N.
commission to provide "technical assistance" to Lebanon.

On the tribunal, the resolution asks U.N. Secretary-General
Kofi Annan to help Lebanon identify the scope of such a court
but did not agree to establish it.

The most controversial issue facing the council is a
resolution, adopted October 31, that threatened "further
action" against Syria if it did not cooperate fully with
Mehlis's team. This could lead to sanctions, either against
individuals or the country as a whole, but divisions in the
council may prevent any punitive action.