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The last-minute alterations made to the Detlev Mehlis report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri may have been made under pressure by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Israel Radio reported Friday afternoon.
A diplomatic source reported that Annan had an interest in removing the name of Syrian President Bashar Assad's brother and brother-in-law, along with other important Syrian officials, from the list of suspects in the Hariri killing.
Assad's brother and brother-in-law had previously been implicated in having involvement in the Hariri assassination.
Annan, according to speculations, was concerned that the harsh report could cause political instability in Syria, perhaps even leading to an overthrow of the Assad regime, and thus preferred a watered-down version of the report.
A spokesman for Annan had said before the report was issued that no changes would be made to it.
Detlev Mehlis was grilled on the report's discrepancies Friday afternoon at a press conference. Mehlis denied allegations that the text of the report submitted to Annan was different than the public version.
"No changes whatsoever were suggested by the secretary general, or by anyone else...All changes were made by myself," said Mehlis.
When asked why computer records showed that he made changes to the report while he was in the meeting with Annan, Mehlis asserted that he "had no idea of the time."
However, Mehlis admitted to making the last-minute changes after learning that the report would be made public, and would not remain confidential.
It was not clear how Mehlis could not have known that the report would be made public, when the whole world had been waiting for weeks for the results of the report.
"In my line of work reports are kept confidential," he said.
Syria on Friday rejected UN findings that linked Damascus to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri as false, unprofessional and politicized.
"I think the report is far from professional and will not lead us to the truth," Mehdi Dakhlallah, the Syrian information minister, said in an interview on Al-Jazeera television from the Syrian capital.
He said the report, about which he had seen media reports but did not have an official text, was "100 percent politicized" and "contained false accusations."
Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, vowing not to leave office, denied a UN claim that he received a phone call minutes before the killing.
The report of the UN probe, submitted to the UN Security Council late Thursday, implicated top Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials in the Feb. 14 assassination of Hariri in a massive bombing in Beirut that also killed 20 others.
The report also raised questions about Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Lahoud, who it said received a phone call minutes before the blast from the brother of a prominent member of a pro-Syrian group, who also called one of the four Lebanese generals, Raymond Azar, who have been arrested in the probe.
Lahoud's office "categorically denies" the media reports about Lahoud receiving a phone call, saying "there is no truth to it."
The statement said the accusations are part of continued campaigns against the president and the office "and the national responsibilities he shoulders and will continue to do so at this delicate stage in Lebanon's history."
Since the arrest of four Lebanese generals in August as suspects, anti-Syrian groups have focused on Lahoud, demanding his resignation. Lahoud has refused to step down, saying his hands are clean and that he supports punishing those found guilty of killing Hariri.
Dakhlallah, the Syrian minister, said the investigation led by Mehlis was biased against Syria and his report was "part of a pressure campaign against Syria which does not stop at accusing Syria of anything evil that happens in the world."
This report "is contrary to the most essential conditions and methods of investigation," he said.
"I don't believe we are closer to the truth. On the contrary, probably there is a kind of deception which runs against the truth, against the interest of Syria and Lebanon and against stability in the region," the Syrian official added.
Asked if Syria would end cooperation with the investigative process, Dakhlallah said Syria would wait for clarifications of the content of the report.
Lebanese police and army took additional security measures ahead of the release of the report out of concern that clashes would erupt in the country between pro and anti-Syrian activists.
In response to the Mehlis report, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said, "I think there needs to be change in Syria," adding that the United States and France should take the lead in deciding on an international response to the findings.
Referring to Assad and his relatives in positions of power, Peres said: "If it is true that the (Syrian) government is involved in the murder (of Hariri), this will shake up the rule of the Assads," Peres told Israel Radio.
He added that it is "not natural or acceptable" for a family representing a small minority to rule Syria in what he said was a brutal fashion.
Ephraim Halevy, former chief of the Mossad, said it was not necessary to prove a direct involvement by Assad. "The head of the Syrian pyramid is Bashar Assad," Halevy told Army Radio. "I don't think ... there is any doubt that this was an extensive and coordinated operation that was planned for many months. Lots of people from the Syrian elite were involved."
Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, head of the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, called for regime change in Damascus.
"As far as I am concerned ... and here I have a dispute with some of the people in the (Israeli) security establishment, it is not just an American interest but a clear Israeli interest to end the Assad dynasty and replace Bashar Assad," said Steinitz.
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