Syria rejects UN Hariri report

Findings tie Assad family to assassination of former Lebanese prime minister.

All eyes are on the UN Security Council, which will meet on Tuesday to discuss a report that incriminates Syria in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

An unedited copy of the report by UN investigator Detlev Mehlis obtained by The Jerusalem Post fingers top Syrian officials including Syrian President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, General Assef Shawkat, and Assad's brother, Maher.

The report also says the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services likely were aware of the assassination plot.

"Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge," reads the report.

Shawkat, who is married to Assad's sister Bushra, is the overall head of Syrian intelligence and considered the second most powerful man in the country. Maher Assad is the commanding general of the presidential guard brigade. Their names were deleted from the official copy that was released to the public.

Syria has denied any involvement in the assassination and has called the report "political."

The assassination of Hariri in Beirut on February 14 killed 20 other people and wounded over 200. Speculation over Syria's involvement prompted the withdrawal from Lebanon of some 14,000 Syrian troops through a UN resolution prepared by the US and France.

Now the United States and France are believed to be weighing a new resolution calling on Syria's full cooperation with the investigation headed by UN investigator Detlev Mehlis.

Hours after the Mehlis report was published, President George W. Bush on Friday called it "deeply disturbing" and that the US would take the issue to the UN Security Council as soon as possible.

Economic sanctions are among the options on the table but less likely, say experts.

"The UN may decide to put more pressure on Syria to cooperate in the investigation, and wait on economic sanctions until the investigation concludes and the final report is submitted," Professor Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria at the Dayan Center, told the Post.

Washington has stepped up pressure on Assad's government and accused it of interfering in Lebanon, letting anti-American insurgents cross into Iraq and supporting Palestinian extremist groups, all charges that Syria denies.

"For the Americans and French, the impressions are enough to take action against Syria," Zisser said.

Lebanon's cabinet discussed the Mehlis report on Saturday, saying it was based on "strong facts and a high level of professionalism." The cabinet also called on Syria to cooperate honestly with the investigation. Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said the probe wouldn't affect his country's ties with Damascus.

In the 54-page report, which features the facts and testimonies of Lebanese and Syrians collected in the investigation, Mehlis takes the rare step of stating his own impressions of who is to blame for Hariri's death.

Syria took case with Mehlis's conclusions. "All that was contained in the report is based on presumptions and allegations," Syrian Foreign Ministry adviser Riyad Dawoodi said at a packed news conference. "There's no proof."

Syria also implied that Israel was behind the killing. Dawoodi said Mehlis's report concluded the assassination "could not have happened without very sophisticated means that belongs to a highly equipped security organ - and just look around, who is very well-equipped?" he asked.

Saad Hariri, the son and political heir of Rafik Hariri, praised the UN investigation and called for an international tribunal to try the alleged killers.

"The hour of truth has come," Saad Hariri said in televised speech from his residence in the Saudi city of Jiddah. "The blood of the martyr Rafik Hariri and his colleagues in the march toward freedom, dignity, sovereignty will not have been shed in vain."

The UN Security Council is likely to demand that the Syrian government allow Syrians to testify outside of their country. Until now Syria has refused that testimonies take place outside the country. The Mehlis report stated that the Syrian government only permitted testimonies in the presence of a Foreign Ministry official and two note-takers.

However, the Syrian News Agency reported on Saturday that the Foreign Ministry stated that "Syria has been keen on meeting all of Mr. Mehlis's demands" and that Mehlis did not turn down a Syrian request that Syrian witnesses testify inside the Syrian territories. The statement also said that Mehlis could have refused the presence of a Foreign Ministry adviser who acted as a lawyer in the testimonies.