President: Syria Will Cooperate With U.N.
By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press Writer
DAMASCUS, Syria - A defiant President Bashar Assad said Thursday his government would cooperate with a U.N. investigation that implicated Syrian officials in the killing of a Lebanese leader, but he warned he would no longer "play their game" if Syria "is going to be harmed."
Hours later, President Jacques Chirac of France, a key member of the U.N. Security Council, warned of sanctions against Syria if Assad "persists in not wanting to listen or understand."
"It is not conceivable, admissible, acceptable for the international community ... that Syria refuses to cooperate," Chirac said in Paris.
In his hard-line speech at Damascus University, Assad also said the chief U.N. investigator into the killing of Rafik Hariri, Detlev Mehlis, had rejected Syria's terms for interviewing six Syrian officials. He gave no hint of how the matter would be resolved, but the Security Council has warned Syria it must cooperate fully with the investigator, who has the right to determine the place and conditions of such interviews.
"We will play their game" and cooperate with the United Nations, Assad said. But that cooperation will "stop when Syria is going to be harmed."
Syria's U.N. ambassador Fayssal Mekdad said later in New York that Damascus will let U.N. investigators question the six officials about the assassination at any U.N. facility in a third country, possibly in Geneva or Vienna, Austria, for example.
But he said Mehlis "should be sensitive" to conducting interviews in the Lebanese capital of Beirut following Syria's withdrawal of troops from Lebanon.
Asked about the "mixed signals" from Assad's speech and whether there were any limits on Syrian cooperation with the Mehlis investigation, Mekdad replied: "There are no limits, whatsoever, at all."
"We will provide him with the people he needs to investigate, or to ask," the Syrian envoy said.
Assad also attacked Prime Minister Fuad Saniora of Lebanon, a country which Syria dominated for nearly three decades until it was forced in April to withdraw its troops in the outcry that followed Hariri's assassination. He said Saniora had failed to honor a pledge "not to allow Lebanon to be a passage for conspiracy against Syria."
Syria has come under intense pressure from the West and the United Nations since a truck bomb killed Hariri and 20 other people in Beirut on Feb. 14. A U.N. interim report into the killing found that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services were involved, and accused Syria of only limited cooperation with the inquiry.
Last week, the Security Council resolved that Syria must cooperate fully with U.N. investigators and upgraded their powers to summon and interview witnesses.
Assad made clear Thursday that Syria would not be cowed.
"President Bashar will not be the president who will bow to anyone in this world. We bow only to almighty God," Assad said, drawing applause from the auditorium and a chant of "With our soul, blood, we redeem you, oh Bashar!" from the crowd outside.
The president said Mehlis, the chief U.N. investigator, had rejected Syria's offer to allow its six officials to be questioned in the U.N. offices in Syria or at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. Assad did not say where Mehlis wanted them to be interviewed, but a Lebanese official close to the investigation has said the United Nations proposed a venue in Lebanon.
The names of the Syrian officials have not been released, but they reportedly include Assad's brother-in-law, Gen. Assef Shawkat, the military intelligence chief.
In Washington, the State Department dismissed Assad's offer. If Mehlis "wants something he should get it, and he should get it without delay and without complication and without obfuscation," deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.
Arab media had expected Assad to take a conciliatory tone with the United Nations and possibly announce political reforms. Arab governments have called on Syria to cooperate and avoid further Security Council action.
But in his 80-minute speech, Assad repeated Syria's hard-line positions.
"Syria is innocent in the absolute sense" of Hariri's murder, Assad said. "Syria is not involved at the government level or at the individual level. The problem is merely a political one in the context of events."
Assad said Syria was facing a coordinated media campaign because of its support for the anti-Israeli Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, Palestinian militants and its opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
"Had there been a compromise (in Syria's position) ... there wouldn't have been a problem," he said.
He added that Israel stood to gain from the pressure on Syria and the unrest in the region.
"The Israeli factor was suspiciously present in all the events witnessed by the region, and the developments proved that Israel was the most prominent and the major benefactor from these events," Assad said.
Associated Press correspondent Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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