WASHINGTON (AFP) -The Syrian government reiterated it played no role in the murder of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri and said it suffered "great harm" from a "faulty" UN report blaming Damascus.
"Syria reiterates that no party or individual with any ties to the Syrian government played a role in the heinous assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri," a statement released by the Syrian embassy here said.
It noted that former Syrian intelligence agent Hassam Taher Hassam, whom the UN enquiry panel quoted seven times in its interim report in formulating the accusations against Syria, has now recanted his testimony.
"This new information completely undermines the information leveled against Syria in the report" released by UN chief investigator Detlev Mehlis.
A statement from the Mehlis commission confirmed that Hassam had testified before it, but added that he had volunteered his testimony and had even expressed fear about repercussions from the Syrian authorities.
The Syrian statement also said that the other main witness used by Mehlis, Zuhair Saddiq, has been charged of committing perjury in his testimony against Syria.
"Syria has repeatedly stated that the testimonies in the Mehlis report, placing the blame for this crime on Syria, were dubious and shady and that the case against Syria was nonexistent," it said.
"This faulty report has damaged Syria tremendously and caused some countries to call for UN sanctions against Syria. Syria is deeply concerned that, by the time the Mehlis Commission ends its investigation and reveals the truth about Hariri”s assassination, sanctions would have already been implemented causing great harm to Syria and its people," it added.
The statement reaffirmed Damascus” pledge to cooperate with the Mehlis panel, as demanded in a UN Security Council resolution adopted on October 31, saying it was "of vital self-interest to Syria for the Commission to uncover the truth about this crime."
The Mehlis panel, which faces a December 15 target date to complete its probe of the Hariri slaying, was due to question five senior Syrian officials in Vienna, but uncertainty surrounded the date with no official confirmation the men had arrived in the Austrian capital.
Two Lebanese newspapers reported that Tuesday was the day for the first interviews but UN and Syrian sources refused to say when the interviews would be taking place.
"The hearings will take place in Vienna as agreed with the head of the UN commission of inquiry, Detlev Mehlis, but Syria wants to observe a complete discretion over the date of departure for the witnesses," a Syrian foreign ministry source in Damascus told AFP.
"Syria is continuing a complete cooperation with the commission of inquiry but wishes that this is done far from the eyes of the media," said the source, who asked not to be named.
A source close to the case told AFP that Syria”s military intelligence chief Assef Shawkat, President Bashar al-Assad”s brother-in-law, was not among the five to be interrogated.
Washington confirmed that it was expecting the Syrian officials to make themselves available in the Austrian capital but gave no date.
The Syrians "have apparently decided to cooperate by sending these witnesses to Vienna," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "We hope only that that cooperation continues and is expanded."