syria protest 298.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered Saturday a judicial committee be formed to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the official news agency, SANA, said.
Assad's decision comes after a UN investigator implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in Hariri's Feb. 14 killing and accused Damascus of not cooperating with the probe.
"President Bashar Assad issued a decree ... to form a special judicial committee headed by the prosecutor-general and comprising the military prosecutor and a judge to be named by the justice minister to question Syrian civilians and military personnel on all matters relating to the UN investigation commission's mission," according to SANA's report.
On Tuesday, chief UN investigator Detlev Mehlis urged Syria conduct its own investigation into the killing.
Keeping pressure up on Damascus, the United States, France and Britain predicted that the UN Security Council will adopt a tough resolution demanding Syria's cooperation in the investigation into the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister. But Russia and Algeria oppose the threat of sanctions.
US Ambassador John Bolton said Friday he expects the resolution to be put to a vote at a ministerial meeting of the Security Council on Monday. Foreign ministers from 13 of the 15 council nations are expected to attend, Bolton said.
The draft resolution - co-sponsored by the United States, France and Britain - strongly backs the Mehlis report.
The latest draft would require Syria to detain anyone the UN investigators consider a suspect, and allow the investigators to determine the location and conditions under which the individual would be questioned. It would freeze the assets and impose a travel ban on anyone identified as a suspect by the commission, "as a step to assist in the investigation" without prejudice to their guilt or innocence.
A committee comprising all Security Council members would be created to oversee the list of those subject to the travel ban and asset freeze, including approving exceptions.
If Syria does not fully cooperate with the investigation, the draft says the council intends to consider "further measures," including sanctions, "to ensure compliance by Syria."
While the text circulated late Friday is in a final form that can be put to a vote, it can still be changed.
"What we see is unanimous support for a very strong, very clear signal, and we're just down now to a very few fine points," Bolton told reporters after council ambassadors went over a revised text at a closed-door meeting.
He said the resolution has the nine "yes" votes required for adoption, and will likely have more by the time of the vote. "I don't foresee a veto," he said.
Britain's UN Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry predicted the resolution will be "approved substantially."
Having foreign ministers adopt the resolution "is to show the intensity of the concern, and to make it very clear at the highest level what we expect," he said.
France's Jean-Marc de La Sabliere also said "there is a strong support for the text" and predicted approval.
But Algeria's UN Ambassador Abdallah Baali, the only Arab member of the council, said his government and others still have problems with the resolution's threat of sanctions if Syria doesn't comply with the investigation, and its demands that Syria stop meddling in Lebanon's internal affairs and stop supporting terrorism.
"We have made it clear that it is premature and it is unjustified to talk about sanctions when the investigation is still going on and we do not know what will be the final outcome," Baali said.
Russia's UN Ambassador Andrey Denisov said he was optimistic and hoped he wouldn't have to use the veto, but reiterated Moscow's opposition to mentioning the threat of sanctions.
"We don't like it. We don't like it," he said. "We feel uncomfortable with that mention and our perception is that it should be deleted."
China has also said it opposes sanctions.
The latest text maintains the language on the sanctions threat but it softens the wording on Syria's interference in Lebanese affairs and changes the requirement that Syria make a commitment to stop supporting terrorism to a request.
Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, predicted that with the new changes the resolution would get 11 or 12 "yes" votes.
The report of the UN-backed investigation into Hariri's assassination caused an uproar in the region and brought swift denials from the Syrian government, which called it biased, politicized and an American plot to take over the region.
Syria's UN Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad insisted Syria "has cooperated faithfully and sincerely" and will continue to do so.
But council members want a tough resolution to pressure Syria into giving the investigators access to top security and government officials, including President Bashar Assad.