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Syria: U.S., France Mull UN Sanctions Following Hariri Report

Syrian pro-government demonstrators on 24 October (AFP) UN Security Council permanent members France and the United States have threatened Syria with possible sanctions if it fails to detain government officials suspected of involvement in the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The warning came hours after a UN Security Council briefing by UN investigator Detlev Mehlis, who said Syria is not cooperating with his commission. Damascus denies any involvement in the assassination and says the accusations are politically motivated.

United Nations, 26 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking yesterday in New York, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said it was time for the Security Council to unite in demanding that Syria to drop its opposition to the UN investigation.

"We want a very strong signal from the council to the government of Syria that its obstructionism has to cease and cease immediately and we want substantive cooperation in the investigation from Syria," Bolton said. "We want witnesses made available, we want documents produced. We want real cooperation, not simply the appearance of cooperation."

Bolton and his French counterpart Jean-Marc de La Sabliere also suggested what the consequences would be if Syria failed to comply.

The United States and France circulated a draft resolution threatening sanctions against Damascus if it refuses to cooperate in the UN investigation into the 14 February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri.

The draft came hours after UN investigator Detlev Mehlis, spoke to the Security Council about his 54-page report, first presented on 21 October, which implicates top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the car bombing that killed Hariri and 20 other people.

In his briefing, Mehlis accused Syria of refusing to cooperate with his investigators. As one example, he cited the insistence by officials in Damascus that they do not have any official files related to Hariri's death -- something Mehlis said he does not believe.

“What can the commission do? I cannot send 500 investigators, which I don’t have, to Syria to look for documents, because I wouldn’t know where to find them," Mehlis said. "What we expect from the Syrian authorities [is] not to just react, but to act, to really look into the matter themselves.”

Mehlis's team of 30 investigators spent over four months interviewing more than 400 witnesses and suspects and reviewing tens of thousands of documents.

But he said Damascus has been so uncooperative that it is still impossible to determine what role, if any, officials like Syrian military intelligence chief Rustum Ghazali had in Hariri's death.

“Why someone like Rustum Ghazali, who, as we have learned through our investigation, tells us he is in the most friendly and personal relationship with Mr. Hariri, and then we come across these taped telephone calls where he’s referring to Prime Minister Hariri as a 'dog,'" Mehlis said. "Somehow it doesn’t fit, and I think it would be a good idea for the Syrian authorities just to make an extra effort by themselves.”

Mehlis said it is not yet clear if the commission will seek to interview Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. The process of interviewing Syrian officials has been so frustrating and counterproductive, he said, that he is not certain there is a reason to continue.

Syria has rejected the findings of Mehlis and his investigators, and says the report reflects a broader effort to neutralize Syria's role in Middle Eastern affairs, including the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Sami Khiyami, Syria's ambassador to Britain, said yesterday the report overlooks the possibility of third-party involvement in the crime and fails to substantiate its claims.

"The report states that such a crime could not happen with the Syrian security forces present in Lebanon and without their knowledge," Kyiyami said. "It is like stating that [the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks] happened although the American forces knew about it."

Mehlis's commission has until 15 December to complete its work, following a request for an extension by the Lebanese government.

Russia and China, two other veto-holding members of the Security Council, have suggested the investigation could ultimately take months or even years to complete. It is unlikely, they say, that any sanctions would be agreed before that time.