Tue, Jan 03, 2006 - Page 6 News List

UN asks to meet former, current leaders of Syria

AGENCIES , BEIRUT AND DAMASCUS

The UN commission probing the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri has asked to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara, its spokeswoman said yesterday.

"The commission has already sent a request to interview Syrian President Assad and Foreign Minister Shara, among others," the spokeswoman said.

UN investigators will also seek to meet former Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam as soon as possible, the spokeswoman said without elaboration.

Khaddam, now living in Paris after resigning in June, said in a television interview aired on Friday that Assad had threatened Hariri months before his Feb. 14 assassination in Beirut.

Syria's ruling Baath Party stripped Khaddam of membership and joined parliament in demanding he be tried for high treason, the official news agency SANA reported on Sunday.

Khaddam, whose allegations provoked an outcry in official circles, told the pan-Arab satellite television channel Al-Arabiya that Assad warned Hariri in August 2004 against pushing for a new president in Lebanon. Assad planned to extend the term of President Emile Lahoud, a pro-Syrian whom Hariri was known to oppose.

Syria's push for the three-year extension of the staunchly pro-Syrian Lahoud's presidency in September 2004 -- which required a constitutional amendment -- was considered responsible for the crisis in Lebanese-Syrian relations that led to Hariri's assassination and the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in April after nearly three decades.

In the extensive television interview, Khaddam's first since he left Syria several months ago, the former leader quoted the Syrian president as telling Hariri: "You want to bring a [new] president in Lebanon ... I will not allow that. I will crush whoever attempts to overturn our decision."

The decision to strip Khaddam of party membership was announced in a statement issued by the Baath Party's National Leadership, the country's highest decision-making authority and headed by Assad.

On Saturday, parliament passed a binding measure that Khaddam be tried for high treason, a charge that is reserved for high officials and carries the death penalty. The measure was sent to the Justice Ministry so it could prepare a case against Khaddam.

While Khaddam said in the interview that he planned to return to Syria after his stay in Paris with his family to write a book, it now was unclear if he would go back with a treason charge lodged against him. It was also unclear what the next step would be for Syrian authorities if treason charges are, in fact, brought.

"Khaddam has joined the band of enemies who are targeting the country and its attitudes," the Baath Party statement said, declaring him a traitor to both the country and the party.

"Khaddam has betrayed the party, the country and the [Arab] nation," the statement carried by SANA said. "The National Leadership has decided to dismiss Khaddam from the party and put him on trial."

The statement said Khaddam's allegations against Syria gave "a cheap service" to those who were seeking to implicate Syria in Hariri's assassination.

"Khaddam has joined [Syria's] enemies ... and also practically joined in a blatant and clear way the American-Israeli project that is aimed at striking Syria's steadfastness and thwarting its pan-Arab role," the statement said.

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