BEIRUT, Lebanon, AP-U.N. investigators said Friday a truck bomb probably was used to kill former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, but they are not sure whether the bomber died as well.
"We are talking here about a probability of 99.9 percent" that the explosion was above ground, chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis told reporters in the first disclosures of the team”s work since it arrived in Beirut in May.
Hariri and 20 others were killed when a huge explosion blew up his motorcade as it was passing through central Beirut on Feb. 14.
Some anti-Syrian Lebanese have speculated the explosives used in the bombing were buried under the street — an act that would suggest the complicity of pro-Damascus officials, since digging up the street would draw attention and require permits.
But Mehlis said Swiss and German experts who examined the scene of the blast have established "without any reasonable doubt" that the detonation was above ground.
The assassination triggered mass protests that brought down the pro-Syrian Lebanese government two weeks later and increased international pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, which Damascus did in late April.
Mehlis” comments came just two days before the final and crucial round of Lebanon”s parliamentary elections, a heated race in which the anti-Syrian opposition is hoping to wrest control of parliament from pro-Syrian legislators.
In the campaign, opposition leaders, including Hariri”s son, Saad, have touted the assassination as an example of the need to vote against pro-Syrian candidates. The opposition has accused Syria and its allies in the Lebanese security services of killing Hariri, a charge they denied.
The opposition needs to win 21 of the 28 seats up for grabs Sunday in north Lebanon to win a majority in the legislature.
Mehlis said he would question Lebanese and Syrian officials, if necessary.
"We will, of course, interview anyone who was in one way or another responsible for the security in Lebanon at the time of the crime," Mehlis said.
His remarks were promptly used in the election campaign. Opposition leader Elias Atallah said Mehlis” comment "will make the hearts and knees of many people tremble, because his investigation will include those who executed and planned (the crime) wherever they are, inside or outside Lebanon."
Pro-Syrian candidate Suleiman Franjieh, who was interior minister when Hariri was killed, said Mehlis” finding was "a medal on my chest."
Franjieh, who is running for a Maronite Catholic seat in north Lebanon, said in February that the explosives were unlikely to have been underground because Hariri”s motorcade had sophisticated electronics that would have jammed a signal for a remote-controlled detonation.
Christian leader Michel Aoun accused his rivals Friday of "amplifying" the Syrian presence in Lebanon for their own purposes. Aoun, whose ticket is campaigning hard in north Lebanon, has been accused of betraying the opposition by making electoral alliances with pro-Syrian politicians.
Mehlis urged people to come forward with information, and offered them protection and anonymity. His appeal underscored the difficulties his team was facing four months after the explosion.
Mehlis gave out pictures of a white Mitsubishi truck, similar to the one which is suspected of carrying the explosives. Asked whether the white truck was parked or moving — which would suggest a suicide bomber — Mehlis said he did not know.
In March, an Arab TV channel broadcast a video from a bank security camera that showed a white Mitsubishi truck passing six times slower than other vehicles.
Shortly after Hariri”s motorcade entered the camera”s view, the lens was obscured by clouds of dust and debris, the apparent result of the huge explosion.
Mehlis said his team was working on determining the legitimacy of a suspect in the bombing, a Palestinian named Ahmed Abu Adas, and a group that claimed responsibility, the little-known Support and Jihad in Syria and Lebanon.
Hours after the assassination, Al-Jazeera TV aired a video in which a bearded man claimed responsibility for killing Hariri. Shortly afterward, Lebanese security forces said they had raided the Beirut home of Abu Adas, allegedly the man in the video, but found nobody.
The team has until mid-September to complete its work, although its mandate could be extended. It was authorized by the U.N. Security Council in April after an initial U.N. fact-finding team concluded that a Lebanese probe did not meet international standards.
That U.N. team reported evidence had been removed, ignored or planted. It also cast serious doubts on the Abu Adas report.