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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

SYRIA: UN investigators deadlocked over interrogation venue

DAMASCUS, 15 November 2005 (IRIN) - The Syrian foreign ministry failed to reach an agreement on Monday with UN investigators on a venue for the questioning of six Syrian officials allegedly involved in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Resolution 1636, unanimously adopted by the Security Council on 31 October, demanded that Syria “cooperate fully and unconditionally" with the UN investigation into Hariri’s assassination.

The resolution further granted chief prosecutor Detlev Mehlis the power to question any Syrian witness or suspect at the location– and under the conditions – of his choosing.

Mehlis had been expected to question six Syrian officials this week, including the president's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who took over as Syria's head of military intelligence on the day of the assassination; and Rustom Ghazali, head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon at the time of the killing.

A report by Mehlis, submitted to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 19 October, concluded that the decision to kill Hariri "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials.” The late prime minister was killed, along with 22 others, in a massive explosion in Beirut in mid-February,

Resolution 1636 threatened Damascus with "further action" unless it arrested suspects in the case and made them available for questioning by UN investigators.

Speaking in Cairo on 8 Novermber Annan said: “Syria has indicated it will fully cooperate fully and I myself have had the chance to speak to President Assad after the passing of the Resolution and he confirmed that to me”.

A report in pan-Arab daily Al Hayat named other Syrians, as part of the six wanted for questioning, as Bahjat Suleyman, dismissed from his post as head of Syria's Internal Security Services following the assassination; and Jamaa Jamaa, Abdel-Karim Abbas and Zafer Youssef, all of whom were Syrian security officials in Lebanon at the time of the killing.

According to a foreign ministry source quoted in the state press on 13 November, foreign affairs legal advisor Riad Daoudi recently returned from a Beirut meeting with Mehlis, having failed to reach an agreement on the details of the interrogations, including where they would be held.

The UN investigator had previously sent a written request for the six officials to be questioned at the commission's headquarters in Beirut this week. The Syrian foreign ministry, however, insists on guarantees that the men in question would not be arrested while in Lebanon.

In a counter-proposal, Damascus has suggested Cairo, Vienna or Geneva as alternative venues, but Mehlis has refused to negotiate the terms under which the men will be questioned.

In a rare, nationally-broadcast speech on 10 November, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad struck a defiant tone, insisting that his country would not be cowed by UN demands.

"Resistance has a price and chaos has a price, but the price of resistance is much less than the price of chaos,” the president said. “If they believe they can blackmail Syria, we will tell them they got the wrong address."

A spokesman for the US State Department, which has played a major role in upping the pressure on Damascus, called Assad's remarks “appalling”.

Joshua Landis, an American professor and author of the Damascus-based SyriaComment website, noted: “The president has said very clearly that his family will not be attacked, and this is what the standoff revolves around."

"It's clear the international community want something more,” he added. “They're looking for regime change, and Syria isn’t going to do that."

Reactions to al-Assad’s defiance were mixed among the thousands of Syrians who turned up outside Damascus University to hear the president’s address.

"He delivered a comprehensive speech, but didn’t talk about the UN demands," said 23-year-old engineering student Hisha'am Shuga'a. “If we send the security chiefs for questioning now, it will be a Syrian failure – we need concrete evidence they were involved."

Mannar Moustapha, 22, from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights said: "Everybody is thinking about what will happen tomorrow, but the president didn’t give us any answers. He didn’t talk about threats to our living conditions" in the event that the international community imposes economic sanctions on Syria.

French President Jacques Chirac, meanwhile, declared that Syria would face international sanctions if it refused to cooperate fully with the probe.

"If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to refuse to listen or understand, then it will become necessary to move to another level, which is that of sanctions," Chirac said on 10 November.

In Beirut, UN investigators questioned pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud on 11 November. While Lahoud wasn’t named as a suspect in the Mehlis report, he has faced mounting pressure to resign after four pro-Syrian generals were charged with murder in connection to the killing.

Theme(s): (IRIN) Governance

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