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US, France, Britain Seek Sanctions in Hariri Assassination Probe

26 October 2005

The United States, Britain and France are asking the U.N. Security Council to threaten Syria with sanctions unless it cooperates with the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

A draft resolution circulated late Tuesday demands that Syria detain any of its nationals suspected of involvement in Mr. Hariri's murder. The strongly-worded measure would impose an asset freeze and travel ban on anyone named as a suspect by United Nations investigators.

The draft was distributed hours after the chief investigator asked the Council for help in persuading Syrian authorities to cooperate with his probe. Speaking to reporters afterward, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis expressed frustration at Syria's attempts to limit his access to witnesses in the case.

"Even if we ask for witnesses to be interviewed outside Lebanon, which at the present situation is that Syrian authorities do not agree to it, that is the last we have heard," Mr. Mehlis says. "If they would offer to come up with a different way how to deal with it, we'd have to think about it, but as of now the Syrian answer to our request is that this, for legal reasons, this cannot be done."

The draft resolution circulated Tuesday threatens unspecified sanctions against Syria if it continues to block the investigation. Washington's U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, one of the driving forces behind the measure, told reporters Tuesday he hopes it will send a very strong message to Damascus.

"We are looking for a strong resolution for the Council that will reflect the unified opinion about the seriousness of this matter and the importance of everybody cooperating," Mr. Bolton says.

Several diplomats, however, said they expect difficult negotiations on the measure. Veto-wielding Council members China and Russia earlier said they would want to look carefully at any resolution threatening sanctions.

Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali, the only Arab representative on the Council, said he would have difficulty supporting any measure that goes further than urging cooperation with the investigation.

"I don't think the time has come to envisage any premature, any action or any kind of measures, what is expected from all concerned at this stage is to fully cooperate with the investigation," Mr. Baali says.

The Mehlis investigation report issued last week outlined a complex assassination plot. It concluded the February 14th bomb attack that killed the former Lebanese prime minister could not have been organized and carried out without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials, and the collusion of their counterparts in Lebanon.

Syria's U.N. Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad angrily refuted the Mehlis Commission findings Tuesday in a speech to the Security Council. Speaking through an interpreter, he charged that Damascus is being unfairly singled out, despite what he said was "lack of credible evidence" of Syria's involvement in the crime.

"Some quarters, either on the basis of a suspect premeditated scheme or out of bad faith have used this crime in a despicable manner in order to fan the flames of hostility against Syria and increase accusations against it," Mr. Mekdad says.

The Syrian ambassador told the Council "every paragraph in the (Mehlis) report deserved a comment to refute its contents".

Under the text of the draft resolution circulated Tuesday, no sanctions could be imposed on Syria until Mr. Mehlis reports back that Damascus is not cooperating. U.N. diplomats say that is unlikely until after the term of the investigation runs out December 15th.

U.S. officials meanwhile, say they are hoping to bring the resolution to a vote at a foreign minister-level Security Council meeting as early as next Monday.

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