March 16, 2006

UN preparing to ask more of Syria in Hariri probe

By Irwin Arieff

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The head of a U.N. probe into
the murder of ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri said
on Thursday he was preparing to make new demands of Syria and
it would take weeks to learn whether Damascus will keep its
promise of full cooperation.

"Our expectations vis-a-vis the Syrian authorities are high
in this respect. The commission has already prepared several
new requests for cooperation to the Syrian Foreign Ministry,"
Belgian Serge Brammertz told the U.N. Security Council.

"The coming weeks will prove whether our requirements will
be justified and our cautious optimism was justified."

Syrian Vice Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad, addressing the
council after Brammertz, said Damascus had offered its full
cooperation in the belief that finding the truth was "part and
parcel of our interests."

U.N. investigators, in their third progress report to the
council, which ordered the investigation, said this week they
were closer to a detailed understanding of how the 2005 plot
was carried out and predicted success in getting to the bottom
of the crime, in part because of better cooperation from Syria.

The report also said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and
Vice President Farouq al-Shara had agreed for the first time to
interviews, which would take place in April.

Assad, in an interview on Sky News television, confirmed on
Thursday that he and Shara had agreed to meet with
investigators, but "not for interrogation."

"In the meeting they can ask about anything and we expect
them to ask about the political background of the problem or
the relations between Syria and Lebanon and all these things,"
the Syrian president said.

Assad had initially refused to be questioned, and an
earlier report accused Shara, then Syria's foreign minister, of
providing investigators with false information in a letter.

U.N. investigators have previously accused Syria of
providing false and misleading information, limiting their
access to Syrian witnesses and restricting their ability to
freely question them once access was gained.


U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Assad on Thursday
to encourage him to fully cooperate "so we can all get to the
truth and complete the investigation as soon as possible,"
chief U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told Reuters.

Hariri was a strong critic of Syria's decades-long
domination of Lebanon, and many Lebanese suspect Syrian
involvement in his killing, which Damascus flatly denies.

An earlier U.N. report concluded Hariri could not have been
assassinated without the approval of top Syrian security
officials and their Lebanese counterparts.

The new report on the death of Hariri and 22 others in a
February 14, 2005, bombing in Beirut was the first since
Brammertz took over the probe in January from German Detlev

Mekdad on Thursday criticized some of the investigative
work performed under Mehlis, saying it was clear a number of
witnesses had made false allegations aimed at damaging Syria.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, speaking to reporters on
Wednesday after private talks with Brammertz, said the question
of Syrian cooperation "remains to be seen."

"Performance is what we are looking for -- the end of its
obstructionist behavior," he said. "We'll see what happens."

Brammertz said that while his inquiry was making progress,
it had also entered a new phase in which investigators were
consolidating their findings in anticipation of eventual
trials, and he did not want to publicly discuss new findings.

But he was optimistic they would "provide critical links in
identifying and holding accountable those responsible for the
crime, at all levels of the chain of command."

Brammertz also disclosed that the handover from Mehlis had
led to deep staff losses that continued to hamper his work.