Analysis: U.N. report set to trouble Syria
- From: BM <m-e-d-a-w-a-r@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Wed, 19 Oct 2005 13:54:18 -0400
Analysis: U.N. report set to trouble Syria
By STEFAN NICOLA UPI Germany Correspondent
KEHL AM RHEIN, Germany, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- Detlev Mehlis, the German investigator leading the U.N. inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is convinced the bombing was plotted by a group of high-ranking Lebanese and Syrian intelligence personnel; his report, which he will hand over to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Friday, is set to reopen old wounds in Syria-Lebanon relations.
According to an article by the German newsmagazine Stern, which will hit the newsstands Thursday, Mehlis, 56, has launched investigations against key figures of the intelligence circles in Beirut and Damascus. United Press International has received the full text of the article ahead of publishing.
According to the piece, written by a journalist close to Mehlis and the investigation, the German and his U.N.-mandated, 100-strong staff heard from more than 400 witnesses about the Feb. 14 assassination of Hariri, the popular former Lebanese politician, who was killed along with 20 of his followers when a bomb exploded under his convoy in downtown Beirut.
While most of the witnesses are not suspected of being involved in the killing, some high-ranking Syrian officials are: Among them, according to Stern, Roustom Ghazalé, the former head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, and Asef Shawkat, the current security chief in Damascus. Mehlis questioned six more high-ranking Syrian intelligence officials, Stern said. Shawkat's involvement could prove especially damaging to Damascus, as he is the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In an interview with CNN, Assad denied any involvement in the killing and vowed to punish any Syrian proved to be involved in the affair.
The Syrian government has borne the brunt of Lebanese and international outrage at the killing, due to its extensive military and intelligence influence in Lebanon, as well as the public rift between Hariri and Damascus just before the prime minister's resignation. Mehlis' mission coincided with growing U.S. pressure on Damascus to control its 310-mile border with Iraq, stop supporting radical Palestinian groups, and end its interference in Lebanon where some say Syrian intelligence is still operating despite the withdrawal of all troops earlier this year.
The report will be made public just days after the death of Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan rattled Damascus. Kenaan, 63, was reported to have committed suicide in his office earlier this month. He served between 1982 and 2001 as the head of Syria's military intelligence service in Lebanon where Damascus maintained several thousand troops and an important contingent of intelligence personnel from 1975 until last April 26, when under international pressure Syria was forced to withdraw. Mehlis questioned Kenaan, but not as a suspect, Stern reported.
He did, however, grill Ghazale for five hours, after which the Syrian reportedly acted rather self-assured: "I love all Lebanese, and Hariri I have loved especially dearly," he said according to Stern.
But Mehlis confronted him with his own motif: Investigators had found $20 million on one of Ghazalé's Beirut bank accounts -- all that with his rather modest monthly salary of roughly $3,000. Mehlis asked the Syrian how he got so much money, to which Ghazale reportedly did not directly answer.
"What does the $20 million have to do with the murder?" he finally asked.
In Lebanon, Mehlis' investigation has led to deep insecurities. The government has beefed up security ahead of the report's publication to ease fears Beirut would slide into chaos. It had initially proclaimed the killing was done by an individual suicide bomber, but Mehlis and his team quickly found otherwise: At least eight people have been directly linked to the assassination, Mehlis found, with a total of 20 people overall involved in the case. Hariri's followers opt that the men responsible are tried before an international tribunal.
Four high-ranking members of the Lebanese intelligence have been arrested. In June, Mehlis' team had searched office and private apartment of Mustafa Hamdan, the pro-Syrian head of the presidential guard. Hamdan is accused of messing with evidence at the scene of the crime, as he ordered to fill up the crater left by the bomb, Stern said.
Prosecutors arrested three more Lebanese officials, including Jamil Sayyed, the country's former security chief. Sayyed has sworn innocence, and said to prove so he would "go to the end of the world."
Syria is under great international pressure from the United States and France over the killing. Washington is expected to increase pressure on the Assad regime if the assassination proves to lead to Damascus. Observers say Syrian involvement in the killing would be near political suicide: It would likely destroy Syria's international reputation and hand its opponents a reason to deliver the blow that could finally destabilize the Damascus regime, and even possibly bring it down. Washington considers Syria a state sponsor of terrorism, though it maintains diplomatic relations with it.
None of the big political killings in Lebanon were solved in recent years -- but Mehlis has a reputation of getting to the truth.
The 56-year-old German from Berlin has solved the "La Belle" case, the terrorist bombing of the Berlin discotheque in 1986, which killed two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman. Mehlis accused Libya of direct involvement in the bombing.
The importance of his new report and his own role might be compared to that of Hans Blix, the U.N. investigator who was deployed to Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction, which he did not.
The U.S. magazine Newsweek earlier this month reported that the U.S. government had discussed a possible military intervention in Syria. According to the article, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice convinced her colleagues to await Mehlis' report for a decision. The goal seems to be to "get [the regime] by the throat, and then really squeeze," Joshua Landis, a Fulbright scholar in Damascus who runs an influential blog called Syriacomment.com, told Newsweek.
So does Mehlis' report decide over war and peace? Or does it simply result in sanctions that might bring about the end of the Assad regime?
"I never wanted to be compared with Hans Blix," Mehlis told Stern. "But now I know how he must have felt."
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