March 16, 2006

Syria leader to meet UN Hariri probe team in April

By David Clarke

LONDON (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on
Thursday he would hold talks in April with U.N. investigators
probing the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister
Rafik al-Hariri last year.

Assad told Britain's Sky television in an interview Syria
would put on trial any citizen found to be involved in the
February 14, 2004 assassination as a traitor but did not rule
out handing over aby suspects to be tried abroad.

"We told (the U.N. investigators) formally in a letter that
they are going to meet with the president and the vice
president ... it's a meeting, so it's different from
interrogation," said Assad, without giving an exact date in

"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."

On Tuesday, the United Nations investigation committee said
in its third report on Hariri's assassination that Assad and
his Vice President Farouq al-Shara had agreed for the first
time to talk to the inquiry but the panel did not say when.

The decision reflected improved relations between Syria and
the inquiry since Belgian Serge Brammertz replaced German
Detelv Mehlis as head of the investigation team.


In his first report since taking charge, Brammertz said the
probe was closer to a detailed understanding of how the plot
was carried out and also predicted success in getting to the
bottom of the crime, partly because of better cooperation from

A previous report by Mehlis had implicated senior Syrian
officials and their Lebanese allies in the killing, and accused
Damascus of dragging its feet over the investigation.

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

His killing in a suicide truck bombing in Beirut sparked
international outrage and Lebanese protests that ultimately led
to Syria's withdrawal of its troops from the country.

Assad said the level of Syrian cooperation had not changed.

"What's changed is the president of the committee. In his
last report ... it was more objective because it recognized
Syrian cooperation," said Assad.

"So we haven't changed but we are more optimistic because
things now are getting more objective and more professional."

Asked if Syria was ready to hand over any suspect
implicated in the killing to an international tribunal, Assad

"According to our law they are traitors and they should be
punished immediately, so there's no discussion about this in
Syria. They are traitors."

"They must be subjected to the Syrian law," he said.

Assad did not rule out handing suspects for trial abroad.

"It's too early to decide. This would be discussed and
studied from a legal point of view, that depends on the
procedures that they are going to take in the U.N., not in the
investigation. But so far we are talking about the Syrian law."