Syria agrees to U.N. questioning
DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria has agreed to allow its officials to be questioned at U.N. offices in Vienna by investigators probing the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a top diplomat said Friday.
At a news conference yesterday, Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said the breakthrough in negotiations with the United Nations came after Syria received "guarantees concerning the rights of the individuals" to be questioned and "reassurances" that its sovereignty would be respected.
A U.N. commission, mandated by the Security Council, is investigating the death of Hariri, who was killed with 20 other people in a massive truck bombing Feb. 14 in Lebanon's capital of Beirut. The commission, headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, issued an interim report last month that implicated Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services in the assassination.
Moallem said Syria will contact the commission soon to work out dates for the questionings.
"The (Syrian) leadership has decided to inform Mehlis that it accepts his suggestion -- as a compromise -- that the venue to listen to the five Syrian officials be the U.N. headquarters in Vienna," Moallem said.
A spokeswoman for Mehlis confirmed that the questionings will take place in Vienna but declined to comment on any assurances the Syrians have received.
The agreement was welcomed by Mehlis, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, who earlier this week accused Syria of "delaying and obstructing" the investigation.
Bolton said Syria's move is a direct result of the "unambiguous, unanimous decision of the Security Council," which had given Mehlis the power to question suspects at a location and under conditions of his choice.
The U.N. Security Council had told Syria that it must cooperate fully with the commission and warned of "further action" -- diplomatic code for sanctions -- if Syria would fail to do so. The council's mandate for the commission expires Dec. 15.
Moallem refused to identify the Syrian officials sought for questioning, citing the "secrecy of the investigation." He said the Syrians will be accompanied to Vienna by only their lawyers.
Reports have said Mehlis had wanted to interview six officials -- including the chief of Syria's military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Assef Shawkat, who is the brother-in-law of Syria's President Bashar Assad.
Moallem, though, said that only the five Syrians are needed for questioning.
"As far as I know, the number of those wanted are five," he said. "I don't know where you got the sixth name."
Mehlis has not publicly said whom the commission wants to interview.
Syria had rejected Mehlis' request to interview the officials in Beirut, claiming they would not be safe in Lebanon's capital. Syria apparently was concerned that Mehlis could recommend the arrest of the officials after they were questioned in Beirut. Lebanon has detained several other suspects at Mehlis' request.
Hariri's assassination provoked mass demonstrations in Lebanon calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops, who have been stationed in the country since the second year of the 1975-90 civil war. The assassination also heightened international pressure for a Syrian withdrawal.
Syria removed its troops in April. In its May-June elections, Lebanon elected the first parliament in many years that did not have a pro-Syrian majority.