U.N. to demand Syrian assistance in bombing probe
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UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution Monday demanding Syria’s full cooperation with a U.N. investigation into the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister and warning of possible “further action” if it doesn’t.
The United States, France and Britain pressed for the resolution following last week’s tough report by the U.N. investigating commission, which implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the Feb. 14 bombing that killed Rafik Hariri and 20 others. The report also accused Syria of not cooperating fully with the inquiry.
The three co-sponsors agreed to drop a direct threat of sanctions against Syria in order to get support from Russia and China, which opposed sanctions while the investigation is still under way. Nonetheless, the resolution was adopted under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which is militarily enforceable.
The resolution requires Syria to detain anyone the U.N. investigators consider a suspect and let investigators determine the location and conditions under which the individual would be questioned. It also would freeze assets and impose a travel ban on anyone identified as a suspect by the commission.
Those provisions could pose a problem for Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as his brother, Maher Assad, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, the chief of military intelligence. The Syrian leader has refused a request from the chief U.N. investigator to be interviewed.
Investigators also want to question his brother and brother-in-law.
The U.S. invited foreign ministers of the 15 Security Council nations to attend the meeting to send a strong message to Syria to cooperate with the inquiry, and a dozen ministers showed up, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and ministers from Russia, China, Britain and France.
Rice told the council that Syria had been put on notice by the international community that it must cooperate with the inquiry by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis.
“With our decision today, we show that Syria has isolated itself from the international community _ through its false statements, its support for terrorism, its interference in the affairs of its neighbors, and its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East,” Rice said. “Now, the Syrian government must make a strategic decision to fundamentally change its behavior.”
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the Security Council is “putting the government of Syria on notice that our patience has limits.”
“The people of the Lebanon have become all too acquainted with grief,” he said. “We owe them a better future, and this resolution is one way of providing them with that better future.”
France’s Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy stressed that the aim of the resolution was “the whole truth about Rafik Hariri’s assassination in order that those responsible for it answer for their crime.”
By adopting the resolution, he said, the council showed solidarity with Lebanon and support for the Mehlis commission’s work, which has been extended until Dec. 15, and demanded “firm and urgent cooperation” from Syria.
After listening to the council members, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa lashed out at Mehlis and the Security Council for accusing Syria of “committing a crime” without producing the evidence and adhering to the presumption of innocence.
“It seems that there was a set intention to point a finger at Syria … pointing the way to this resolution,” said al-Sharaa, who was personally accused in the Mehlis report of lying to investigators.
Al-Sharaa said accusing Syrian security forces of advance knowledge of Hariri’s assassination was tantamount to suggesting U.S. officials had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or that Britain knew about the July transit bombings.
A visibly angry Straw called al-Sharaa’s comments “the most grotesque and insensitive comparison.” Rice told reporters afterward it was an “unbelievable tirade” that showed the Syrians were intent on trying to discredit the investigation.
At the end of his speech, al-Sharaa insisted Damascus wants the truth and said “Syria’s decision was and is to fully cooperate with the international commission until conclusive evidence is found of the perpetrators of this heinous crime.”
“I look forward to the full cooperation of Syria in form as well as substance,” Straw retorted, “but I have to say after what I’ve heard I’m not holding my breath.”
Assad on Saturday ordered that a judicial committee be formed to investigate Hariri’s assassination. A presidential decree said the committee will cooperate with the U.N. probe and Lebanese judicial authorities.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, whose country has large Lebanese and Syrian communities, made clear that any further action against Syria would require Security Council approval.
“Brazil will not favor hasty decisions that may lead to an undesirable escalation of the situation or further endanger the stability of the region,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the resolution was useful because it showed the council’s determination to discover the truth behind Hariri’s assassination. “The final text of the resolution, of course, is not ideal,” he said.
Russia said last week it opposed sanctions against Syria, its longtime ally. Late Sunday, Lavrov criticized what he described as attempts to turn the Security Council into an investigative body, in comments broadcast by Russia’s Channel One television.
Although the final text dropped the threat of sanctions, it said if Syria doesn’t cooperate “the council, if necessary, could consider further action.” That could ultimately include sanctions.
In another concession to try to get Russia and China on board, the co-sponsors also agreed to drop an appeal to Syria to renounce all support “for all forms of terrorist action and all assistance to terrorist groups.”
Syria is pushing for an emergency Arab League summit to try to rally regional support, said Arab diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity because the request had not been officially made.
The diplomats, speaking at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, suggested a smaller gathering of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Lebanon and Egypt might be organized should other countries decline to participate out of concern over harming ties with the U.S., France and Britain.
The diplomats said Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa sent an envoy to Gulf countries informing them of the Syrian request. They said Syria hoped for the meeting later this week, after the end of the Muslim religious month of Ramadan.
The Syrian media criticized the U.N. resolution before the vote Monday, with the English-language Syria Times saying it was “openly politicized” and too heavily influenced by the U.S.
“It’s immoral and totally unacceptable that the will of the (international) community remains captive to a unilateral diktat and … accepts tyranny and hegemony,” the paper said.
Syria’s official news agency, SANA, said Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem toured Gulf countries this past weekend bearing a message from the Syrian president concerning “the dangers Syria faces” as a result of the U.N. action.
SANA quoted Moallem as saying the resolution was “dangerous” and aimed at hurting Syria, not uncovering the truth in the Hariri assassination. Moallem said Syria will “continue to cooperate” with the U.N. investigation despite.
While Syria has rejected accusations of its involvement in Hariri’s killing, it buckled under international pressure and withdrew its soldiers from Lebanon in April, ending a 29-year presence in its smaller neighbor.