U.N. Team to Question Syrian Witnesses in Hariri Murder Probe

The team, which will not include lead investigator German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, will conduct the interviews from Dec. 5 to Dec. 7, Ibrahim Gambari, U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs told Reuters.

The interrogation in the Austrian capital marks a compromise between the Syrian government and Mehlis over where the questioning would occur.

Officials in Damascus initially insisted questioning take place in Syria, while Mehlis wanted to conduct the interviews in Lebanon. Both sides finally agreed on Vienna.

Though the U.N. has not released names of those to be questioned, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat is not expected to be on the list, diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters. The diplomats floated the names of more junior officials.

Monday’s interviews are expected to be the beginning of a series of interviews conducted by the U.N. in the Hariri death probe.

Hariri, a critic of Syria’s domination of Lebanon, and 20 others, died Feb. 14 in a carbomb attack in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. His death touched off a political hailstorm in Lebanon, popularly called the “Cedar Revolution,” marked by mass protests and calls for the dissolution of the country’s pro-Syrian government.

The protests, as well as international pressure on Assad’s government, led to Syria’s withdrawal of its troops after 30 years on Lebanese soil and the creation of a new Lebanese government.

Hariri’s family and his supporters have accused the Syrian government of playing a role in Hariri’s death. Syria denies the accusations.

Mehlis’ final report, due Dec. 15 will likely not end the investigation, according to Gambari, who also said Mehlis is expected to resign by the end of the year after his six-month commitment ends.

“The investigation has to continue,” he said.

In Lebanon, where officials initiated the call for the international investigation following Hariri’s death, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said his government would discuss whether to support an extension.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also expected to ask the Security Council to extend the investigation after Dec. 15.

Last week, Mehlis’ inquiry, which so far has implicated several top Syrian and Lebanese security and government officials, hit a snag when one of its key witnesses Husam Taher Husam claimed he had been bribed by the Hariri family and Lebanese officials to denounce Syria.

Syrian officials on Thursday demanded a new U.N. investigation, but were rejected by Mehlis, who dismissed the claim as a Syrian effort to obstruct the inquiry, the A.P. reported.

Also Thursday, Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah al-Dardari said Syria would hand over to the U.N. anyone indicted in Hariri’s assassination, but only after they went through the Syrian legal process.

“The person will be arrested by Syrian authorities and then handed over to the U.N.,” he said.