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Top Syrian Officials Implicated in Lebanese Assassination

Chief investigator Detlev Mehlis’ findings focused on the Feb. 14 car bomb that killed the popular opposition leader and former prime minister as well as 20 others. The report does not explicitly blame Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle, but did accuse the Damascus regime of failing to cooperate in the inquiry and alleged former Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa lied in a letter to the investigating commission.

The names of Assad’s brother and brother-in-law as well as other top Syrians were edited out of the final report, U.N. diplomats said Friday, but the wrong version was then released to the public.

Mehlis said the names should not have been released because the Syrians had only been identified by a witness interviewed by his investigators.

The uncensored version cites one witness as saying Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, Syria’s military intelligence chief, set up a false confession to Hariri’s murder 15 days before it took place.

The report also raises questions about Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, alleging he received a phone call from a brother of a prominent member of a pro-Syrian group minutes before the February blast.

The U.N. Security Council is likely to use the report to renew pressure on Syria to ease its continued influence on Lebanon.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a demand for accountability.

“Accountability is going to be very important for the international community,” Rice told reporters as she flew with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw for a tour of Alabama, Reuters news agency reported. “We cannot have the specter of one state’s apparatus having participated or having been involved in the assassination of the former prime minister … in another state.”

The Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, expressed shock at the findings, calling them unfair and biased against his country.

“The report is full of political rumors, gossip and hearsay, and it has not a single shred of evidence that will be accepted by any court of law,” Moustapha said, according to Reuters. “We are so disappointed with it.”

Mehlis concluded that the complex assassination plot involved several months of preparation and was conducted by a sophisticated group with “considerable resources and capabilities.” Although the primary motive was political, some of the perpetrators may have been motivated by fraud, corruption and money laundering, he added.

Lebanon has already arrested four officials, all Lebanese generals close to Syria.

According to the report, Hariri’s relationship with Syrian officials took a turn for the worse in 2004 when he supported a U.N. resolution adopted in September 2004 that unsuccessfully attempted to stop Lebanon’s parliament from extending the term of Lahoud, Hariri’s longtime rival. The resolution also demanded Syria withdraw all its troops and intelligence operatives from Lebanon.

The report details the events leading to the assassination. Mehlis said the slaying followed a “growing conflict” between Hariri and senior Syrian officials, including Assad. Tensions came to a head during a 10-to-15-minute meeting between the two men on Aug. 26, 2004. Interviews and statements about the meeting, including several by Hariri’s associates and his son, alleged that the Syrian president threatened Hariri if he opposed the plan. Saad Hariri said his father told him that Assad said: “This extension is to happen, or else I will break Lebanon over your head.”

And another witness is quoted in the report as saying Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, one of the four Lebanese generals under arrest, ended an October 2004 conversation with, “We are going to send him on a trip, bye, bye Hariri.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said shortly after the report’s release that the United States has “considered various contingencies” but would decide what to do only after it had read the report and consulted with other interested governments, the Associated Press reported.

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