The Security Council approved a request from Lebanon's prime minister for UN investigators already probing last year's assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri to assist the government's investigation of the latest assassination of an anti-Syrian Cabinet minister. The council acted just hours after Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a letter informing members that Prime Minister Fuad Saniora wanted "technical assistance" from the UN investigation commission in his government's investigation of Tuesday's killing of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel.
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"We have decided to respond swiftly," Peru's UN Ambassador Jorge Voto-Bernales, the current council president, told reporters minutes after signing a letter to Annan approving the assistance. "There was no discussion on this issue. Actually all members agreed on this very quickly."
Argentina's UN Ambassador Cesar Mayoral said it was very important to start the investigation quickly.
"If you send the letter today, the investigation could start tomorrow," he said.
US Ambassador John Bolton strongly backed Saniora's request and said earlier Wednesday that "it would be prudent" for the council to act "as rapidly as possible while the crime scene evidence is still fresh and before obstruction of justice can take place."
After the council's decision to approve the letter, senior US diplomat William Brencick said, "we're very pleased that the council acted swiftly to send the letter approving the request of the Lebanese government."
Annan said in his letter to the council that Saniora wanted help from the UN investigation commission led by Belgian judge Serge Brammertz and asked that the commission contact the appropriate Lebanese authorities.
Since the International Independent Investigation Commission reports to the Security Council, Annan said he was transmitting Saniora's request "in order for members to take appropriate action."
In its letter of reply to the secretary-general, the council said it was "determined to support the government of Lebanon in its efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers, and sponsors of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel and other assassinations."
The council referred to several past resolutions including one adopted in June that extended the Brammertz commission's mandate for a year and supported technical assistance by the UN commission to the Lebanese government, "as it deems appropriate," in other terrorist attacks.
Council members "therefore invite the commission to extend its technical assistance as appropriate to the Lebanese authorities in this investigation and invite the secretary-general to so inform the government of Lebanon" and Brammertz, said the letter, which diplomats said was drafted by the United States and France.
Gemayel, 34, the scion of a prominent Christian family, was assassinated hours before the Security Council approved a tribunal to prosecute the suspected killers of Hariri and 14 other Lebanese who died at the hands of assassins or their bombs. Bolton said the United States will push to add Gemayel's assassination to the list of killings considered by the tribunal.
With the Security Council's green light, it is now up to the Lebanese government to give final approval to the establishment of the tribunal, which would be located outside Lebanon and have a majority of international judges and an international prosecutor. Annan said having more international than Lebanese judges would help ensure the tribunal's independence.
The February 2005 truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others sparked huge protests against Syria, which was widely seen as culpable. Syria denied involvement, but was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year presence.
Syria also denied involvement in Gemayel's assassination and condemned it, but Syria's opponents in Lebanon and allies of Gemayel pointed the finger at Damascus. Some accused Syria of trying to block the establishment of the tribunal.
Lebanon's Council of Ministers, led by Saniora who is anti-Syrian, approved the tribunal plan on November 13 but pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud has challenged the ministers' decision. Saniora's government has also come under intense pressure from Hizbullah, which has close ties to Syria and Iran and gained strength from this summer's war against Israel, to give them more power or face street protests.
With Gemayel's death and earlier resignations, Saniora's Cabinet is down to 17 members - just one more than the minimum required by the country's Constitution. There are fears among Saniora's supporters that other Cabinet members will be assassinated which would lead to the collapse of his government.
Bolton noted the concerns expressed Tuesday in Lebanon "that additional assassinations might be coming."
Noting that Nov. 22 is the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, Bolton said: "Certainly for the United States today's a day to remember assassinations, and it's why we feel so strongly that we need to support the government of Lebanon and hopefully deter any further acts of terrorism, or to make it clear that terrorists who do engage in these acts will be prosecuted."
The best way to stop the killings, he said, is to "find the killers and put them in jail."
"If we don't proceed with the operation of Lebanese law and the investigation and prosecution of these assassinations, then the terrorists will have won, and they know it," Bolton warned.
If the law isn't enforced, "it's the law of the jungle and that's what we fear - that's what we think the terrorists may want to provoke," he said.