Integrated Regional Information Network - New Approach to Hariri Probe, February 27, 2006
The first visit to Syria by Serge Brammertz, the new head of the UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, signals a new approach in Damascus' dealings with the UN commission, analysts say. The one day visit took place on 23 February. “The Syrians are now saying they have another way of dealing with the parameters of the investigation,” said Syrian political analyst Ayman Abdel-Nour. Abdel-Nour suggested that a recent cabinet reshuffle and changes made to Syria's own judicial inquiry into the Hariri killing were a signal that Damascus would attempt to keep a low profile in its dealings with the UN in the months ahead. The previous approach saw Damascus holding a number of high-profile press conferences to refute the UN's findings and question the legitimacy of key witnesses interviewed by former head investigator Detlev Mehlis. The 11 February reshuffle saw former Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara, who has yet to meet the UN commission request for questioning, appointed as vice president. In addition, Nabil Khateeb was appointed the new head of the Syrian inquiry into the Hariri assassination while Ibrahim Daraji was removed as the inquiry's spokesman. “They’ve agreed with investigator Brammertz to keep things in secret,” said Abdel-Nour. UN commission spokeswoman in Beirut Nasra Hassan, contacted by IRIN, said Brammertz had held “a working meeting” on his first trip to Syria which had been “constructive”. “It was a good meeting…that focused on cooperation on pending, new and future requests,” she said. Brammertz, the Belgian prosecutor who took over from Mehlis in January as head of the UN commission, met with Syria's new Foreign Minister Waleed Mualem for a few hours on Thursday for talks that focused “on ways to guarantee the success of the commission's work,” according to SANA. The independent ‘syrianews’ website reported that Brammertz had met with Ahmed Arnous, an assistant to Mualem; Nabil Khateeb, former justice minister and new head of the Syrian inquiry; and Riad Daoudi, the legal advisor to the foreign affairs ministry. Officials from the ministries of information, justice and foreign affairs, however, were unwilling to comment on the meeting. Rafik Hariri was the target of a fatal car bomb on 14 February 2005. Mehlis released two reports last year. The first, made public in October, stated that the decision to kill Hariri “could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials”. Damascus, however, denies any role in the killing, and has refused a UN request to question President Bashar al-Assad. In a surprise visit, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Beirut on Thursday that Syria must give its “full cooperation” to the probe. UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1664, issued in December, threatened Damascus with “further action” in the absence of unconditional cooperation. Rice's visit, devised to show support for Lebanon, was not announced beforehand for security reasons. A string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures followed the Hariri assassination last year. Syria was the dominant power in Lebanon for three decades after intervening in 1976 in its smaller neighbour's civil war. Syrian troops withdrew last April following UNSC Resolution 1559, issued in September 2004, which called for all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon. The withdrawal also came in the wake of domestic and international pressure following the Hariri assassination. Meanwhile, two Lebanese judges went to United Nations headquarters in New York on Thursday to discuss a proposed international tribunal to try suspects in the killing, a Justice Ministry source said. “We're waiting for the alternatives and will choose one and present it to the council of ministers,” the source said, adding that a decision was expected within weeks. Resolution 1644 also called for a “tribunal of international character” into the killing, at Beirut's behest.