Thu, Oct 27, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Syria launches diplomatic reply

DENIAL Under pressure at the UN, Bashar Assad said Syria had no hand in the killing of Rafik Harari, but appeared to indicate he would cooperate with a UN investigation

AFP AND AP , WASHINGTON AND UNITED NATIONS

Syrian President Bashar Assad, in a letter sent to Washington, London and Paris, pledged to bring to trial any Syrian linked to the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Harari, the Washington Post said yesterday.

Assad, in the letter dated Sunday, denied involvement by his government in the Feb. 14 car bombing and warned that any international pressure brought to bear on Syria would have "serious repercussions" in the region.

Assad's letter, a copy of which the daily obtained in Damascus from diplomatic sources, is aimed at US and French moves in the UN Security Council to press for full Syrian cooperation in a UN probe that has implicated senior Syrian and Lebanese security officials in Harari's death.

"I have declared that Syria is innocent of this crime, and I am ready to follow up action to bring to trial any Syrian who could be proved by concrete evidence to have had connection with this crime," Assad said in the letter.

Assad's letter suggested that his government would cooperate in the UN investigation to deflect criticism, the Washington Post said.

However, the Syrian leader warned against the UN report being used as a political tool to pressure Syria. The Security Council is currently split on whether to impose sanctions to force Syrian cooperation or wait for the UN report to be completed on Dec. 15.

The pledge to prosecute any Syrian proved implicated in Harari's murder is, according to the daily, Assad's "most substantive response" to the report by UN chief investigator Detlev Mehlis.

Diplomatic sources told the Post that two versions of Assad's letter were delivered: one with the pledge to prosecute was sent to Washington, London and Paris, while another omitting the pledge was sent to other Security Council members.

The US, France and Britain challenged the rest of the Security Council to adopt a tough resolution against Syria which would threaten sanctions if Damascus fails to cooperate fully with the UN.

The pressure on Syria was likely to intensify yesterday when a report by the UN special envoy on Syria-Lebanon, Terje Roed-Larsen, on disarming Lebanese militias was released. There are allegations that Syria is continuing to smuggle arms to Palestinian militia groups in Lebanese refugee camps, in violation of a council resolution adopted in September last year demanding that all militias be disarmed.

But how tough the Security Council will be on Damascus remains to be seen. Russia and China, which as permanent members have veto power, and Algeria, the only Arab member of the council, have been hesitant to use the threat of sanctions to back up a call for more Syrian cooperation.

A draft resolution circulated late on Tuesday by the US, France and Britain strongly backs a report by the UN investigating commission which implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in Hariri's assassination and accused Syria of not cooperating fully with the probe.

But Damascus is certain to be unhappy about many of the demands it would face if the draft resolution is adopted.

It would require Syria to detain anyone the UN investigators consider a suspect and allow the individual to be questioned outside the country or without Syrian officials present.

It would also immediately freeze the assets and impose a travel ban on anyone identified as a suspect by the commission.

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