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Friday, October 21, 2005

Top Syrian Seen as Prime Suspect in Assassination - New York Times

Top Syrian Seen as Prime Suspect in Assassination - New York TimesOctober 21, 2005
Top Syrian Seen as Prime Suspect in Assassination
By JOHN KIFNER and WARREN HOGE

UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 20 - The United Nations investigation into the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon is focusing on the powerful brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria as the main suspect, a diplomat with intimate knowledge of the inquiry said Thursday.

The diplomat spoke as a long-awaited United Nations report on the killing made public on Thursday said it was a carefully planned terrorist act organized by high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officers.

Though the report did not include names, the diplomat said the investigators were focusing on Syria's military intelligence chief, Asef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law.

"Their main lead is that he is the ringleader," the diplomat said. "This is where it is heading."

Detlev Mehlis, the United Nations investigator, has been given an extension until December to continue his inquiry. He said his commission had in four months interviewed more than 400 people, reviewed 60,000 documents and arrested four high-level officials of the Lebanese "security and intelligence apparatus."

"There is evidence in abundance," the diplomat said. "But to get every piece of the puzzle they need more time." He spoke on condition of anonymity because of what he described as the extreme sensitivity of the matter.

Mr. Shawkat is considered the second most powerful man in Syria and has been seen as a likely candidate to take over the country if the embattled Mr. Assad were removed from office.

The diplomat, describing Syria as a "country run by a little family clique," said the involvement of any one in Mr. Assad's inner circle would be a severe blow to the government.

"There is absolutely no doubt, it goes right to the top," he said. "This is Murder Inc."

In his report, Mr. Mehlis said the killing last February was carried out by "a group with an extensive organization and considerable resources and capabilities."

The report said, "There is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act."

The 54-page report said the crime had been planned "over many months" and that the movements of Mr. Hariri and the convoy he traveled in had been closely monitored with his "itineraries recorded in detail."

As evidence of the coordination, the report listed cellphone records that showed close street-by-street observation of his convoy by people planning the killing. It also said the telecommunications antenna near the crime scene had been tampered with.

Mr. Hariri and 15 others died when a bomb blew up his six-car convoy on a downtown Beirut street.

It said the van containing the bomb had earlier been seen in a Syrian military base in Lebanon.

Mr. Mehlis and his investigators spent several days in September interrogating Syrian security officials in a resort near the Syria-Lebanon border, and his report said that leads developed there "point directly towards Syrian security officials as being involved with the assassination."

Indications that the Mehlis report would reveal a Syrian role in the Hariri killing have focused pressure on Mr. Assad and caused intense anxiety in political circles in Damascus and Beirut.

As the investigation tightened this month, the Syrian interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, who for two decades had called the shots in Lebanon as Syria's virtual proconsul, was found dead in his Damascus office, shot in the mouth with his own pistol.

Syria's official news agency announced that the death had been a suicide.

The United Nations investigators - as well as many Lebanese and Syrians - cast doubt on that account, suspecting instead that he was either killed by government agents or forced to kill himself under some threat.

Investigators had two theories, the diplomat said: "One was that he had either given information to Mr. Mehlis or was about to. The other was that he was involved in plotting a coup."

The United States has sought support from allies in the region to isolate Syria and force Mr. Assad to cease the support and financing of anti-Israel militias and stop what Washington believes is a willingness by Damascus to infiltrate insurgents across its border with Iraq.

John R. Bolton, the United States ambassador, said, "After an initial read, the results are clearly troubling and will require further discussion with the international community."

Diplomats from the United States, Britain and France have been discussing options for action against Syria to be considered next week by the Security Council. Mr. Mehlis will brief the Council on his report on Tuesday.

Among the options are two resolutions that would step up pressure on Damascus to end actions destabilizing the region, according to a European diplomat familiar with talks on the subject between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the French president, Jacques Chirac, in Paris last week.

He said one resolution would be put forward under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, which calls for forceful measures like economic and diplomatic sanctions, and the other under Chapter 6, which calls for solutions through negotiation and mediation.

The United States and France sponsored the original resolution in September 2004 calling on Lebanon to reject Syrian interference in its politics and calling on all foreign forces to leave the country. The resolution led to the eventual departure of 20,000 Syrian troops and the virtual end of the decades-long domination of Lebanese politics by Syria.

A second report on Syria originally scheduled for this week, has been put off until next week to avoid what United Nations officials described as a "congestion" of measures dealing with Damascus. That report will verify whether all Syrian troops and intelligence officials have truly withdrawn from Lebanon and track progress in disarming militias as required by a United Nations resolution.

The Mehlis report showed that the commission had discredited a number of other leads and claims of responsibility for the killing that might have been put forward to disguise the real authors of the crime.

Mr. Mehlis said a number of witnesses feared they would be harmed if it became known that they had cooperated with the commission, and said that consequently he had not identified any of them in the report.

He said there were now competent judicial and security authorities in Lebanon to carry forward the investigation with international assistance and support.

Beirut's streets were empty Thursday night as many Lebanese stayed home fearing possible violence resulting from the release of the report. In recent months, a string of bombings have rattled the fragile peace of the city, underscoring the gravity of the political crisis set off by the assassination of Mr. Hariri.

In Beirut, late night traffic on Hamra Street, normally a busy thoroughfare, was little more than a trickle as Lebanese soldiers made spot searches of cars and bicyclists, and armored vehicles patrolled some streets.

A group of young men gathered round a television in a food shop, listening to news of the release of the report but not quite knowing what to make of it.

"Did they name Shawkat?" one man asked.

"I'm not sure," the store owner said.

"Whom did they name?" another asked.

"We don't know yet," said several others as they tried to turn up the volume to listen to the announcer who pored through the report.

Hassan M. Fattah contributed reporting from Beirut for this article.

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