Syria open to UN team meeting minister: diplomats

Date: 01-04-06

By Nadim Ladki

Wed Jan 4, 3:36 PM ET

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria has agreed to allow U.N. investigators to interview its foreign minister over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, diplomats said on Wednesday.

Syria was still considering a request by the U.N. team probing the February killing to meet President Bashar al-Assad, but an interview with Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara was acceptable, the diplomats said.

"The request is being considered while other capitals are in contact with Syria on the same subject," a diplomatic source said. "As announced before, there is no objection that the committee meets Shara. That position did not change."

Asked to comment on the report, a Syrian Foreign Ministry official told Reuters in Damascus: "Syria has not informed the (U.N.) committee of any decision since the request has been made."

A senior Saudi official is expected to discuss in Damascus on Wednesday the issue of Syria's cooperation with the investigation. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt held talks on the matter in Saudi on Tuesday.

The United States has warned Syria that its top officials should submit to the interviews in line with a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for it to comply fully with the inquiry or face unspecified "further action."

On Wednesday, the United States said the agreement over the foreign minister was a positive step but wanted more cooperation.

"It's not a complete step in the direction of compliance. There are still outstanding requests for interviews. And we'll see, as we go along, how Syria behaves in terms of its compliance," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told a news briefing.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, on a visit to Lebanon, also urged Syria to cooperate with the inquiry and hinted at further action if it did not.

"We urge and continue to urge Syria to cooperate fully with those (U.N.) resolutions, in particular with the United Nations investigation into the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri," he said.


Syria has denied any role in the killing and has not commented on the request for an interview with its president, although it previously invited U.S. chief investigator Detlev Mehlis to meet Shara.

The diplomatic sources gave no details on the possible date or venue of any meeting with Shara but said it would be outside Syria. The investigation team had no comment on the report.

Investigators questioned five Syrian officers in Vienna last month. Mehlis said in a report to the Council later in December that the five were among 20 Lebanese and Syrian suspects in the murder.

Mehlis's team had questioned Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud over the murder and ordered the arrest of four Lebanese generals who were in charge of the country's security at the time of the crime.

U.N. investigators also want to meet former Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, now living in Paris, as soon as possible. Khaddam said in a television interview that Assad had threatened Hariri months before he was killed in Beirut in February 14.

(Additional reporting by Inal Ersan in Damascus, Alaa Shahine in Beirut and Saul Hudson in Washington)



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