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UN names Hariri assassination suspects

August 31, 2005 14:44 IST

United Nations on Tuesday named four pro-Syrian generals and a former legislator as suspects in the February assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. This is the first major break in a crime that transformed Lebanon.

UN investigators were interrogating the men at a hilltop hotel overlooking Beirut after searching the generals' homes. The Lebanese government, acting on UN's request, detained three of the suspects; a fourth surrendered for questioning and a fifth returned from Syria, promising to cooperate.

The moves against such once-powerful generals and politicians, who had readily executed Syrian policy in Lebanon, would have been unthinkable a few months ago, when the country and its government were still under Syrian control.

Syria's troop withdrawal in April, however, has turned the country's power structure on its head. After Hariri's assassination, Damascus ended its nearly three-decade domination of the country under intense domestic and international pressure. New parliamentary elections swept anti-Syrian politicians into government.

Tuesday's startling developments, however, still could produce a serious political fallout in the country, particularly by targeting the commander of the Presidential Guards Brigade, Brigadier General Mustafa Hamdan. He provides security for and is an associate of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, a bitter political foe of Hariri. Hamdan voluntarily appeared for questioning.

Lahoud said the summonses were not arrests and praised Hamdan as 'one of the best officers in the Lebanese army'.

Besides Hamdan, the generals swept up in Tuesday's actions were: Major General Jamil Sayyed, former chief of the powerful General Security department; Major General Ali Hajj, former police chief; and Brigadier General Raymond Azar, former head of military intelligence.

The four generals already have been questioned by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, the UN chief investigator who requested that the men be summoned.

Details of the investigation are secret and nothing was known about what evidence led to the detentions. All of those being interrogated were still in custody late Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. They have not been visited by lawyers.

Three other officers and Hamdan's brother also were detained for questioning, the state television reported.

Mehlis also summoned former legislator Nasser Qandil, a staunch defender of Syria's influence in Lebanon. Qandil was in Syria when police went to his Beirut house; he later returned by car and was escorted by two police vehicles from the Lebanese border to the capital. In brief comments to reporters, he said he would cooperate with the investigation.

"I place myself at their (UN team's) disposal and at the disposal of anything that leads to speeding up the unveiling of the truth in Hariri's murder," Qandil said.

Hariri was assassinated in a massive bombing on February 14 on a Beirut street that also killed 20 others. The attack prompted mass anti-Syrian protests and intensified international pressure on Syria to withdraw its army, ending 29 years of control of its neighbour.

Many Lebanese blamed Hariri's assassination on Syria and pro-Syrian elements of their government. Syria and its Lebanese allies denied any involvement.

Since Hariri's killing, a series of smaller bombs have exploded in commercial centers and cars, killing several people, including two anti-Syrian activists.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who is opposed to Syrian influence in this country, sought to reassure the public while expressing confidence in the Mehlis investigation. "Lebanon is all right and the world will only collapse on the heads of the criminals," he said, on Tuesday.

Army and police street patrols were visibly increased in Beirut and around the headquarters of the UN investigative team and the UN office in the capital. In Hariri's southern Lebanese hometown of Sidon, about 100 people marched, waving victory banners and pictures of the slain leader.

Despite the seeming breakthrough in the case, many people already feared the consequences of the investigation, particularly if it blamed Syria or those beholden to Damascus, which retains considerable influence in Lebanon.

On Tuesday, a top UN official told the UN Security Council that Syria was still not cooperating with the investigation, despite appeals from the world body, US Deputy Ambassador Anne Patterson told reporters in New York.

The comment from the Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari came after the United Nations accused the Syrians last week of refusing to turn over documents and ignoring requests for interviews.

Still, Saad Hariri, son of the slain leader and head of the biggest parliamentary bloc, praised the moves as "the beginning to justice."

"We have been waiting for a while to arrive at the truth. This is the beginning... The most important thing is to know who killed Rafik Hariri," he told pan-Arab Al-Arabiya satellite television in an interview from Paris.

(With contribution from Edith M Lederer)

He and some other politicians and prominent journalists were staying outside Lebanon, claiming they feared further violence as tensions in the country rose ahead of Mehlis' issuing his findings. There has been talk in Lebanon of a 'hit list' targeting prominent Lebanese.

While there have been many assassinations in Lebanon over the decades, particularly during the 1975-90 civil war, the political murders have been rarely solved.

The three former security chiefs detained on Tuesday had stepped down in April as calls mounted for their dismissal. They have been accused by anti-Syrian groups of negligence in the investigation into the assassination and allegedly tampering with evidence.

Lebanese media have reported that Hajj spied on Hariri for Syria while acting as his military aide; that Sayyed, who also was close to Syria and to Lahoud, had been engaged in a power struggle with Hariri dating back to the 1990s; and that Hamdan allegedly ordered the remains of Hariri's motorcade removed from the scene of the massive bombing.

Sam F Ghattas in Beirut
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