BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – An increasingly isolated Syria said on Friday the U.N. report that accused Damascus of approving the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was false, unprofessional and politicized.
Anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians applauded the U.N. findings, which did not directly implicate embattled President Bashar Assad, with one lawmaker saying the report was a "clear condemnation" of the joint Syrian-Lebanse security apparatus that controlled the country at the time of Hariri”s Feb. 14 assassination.
While Assad was not directly tied to the killing, the report does included a single reference to Assef Shawkat, Assad”s brother-in-law and the Syrian intelligence chief. According to one witness, Shawkat forced a man to tape a claim of responsibility for Hariri”s killing 15 days before it occurred.
Hariri had quarreled with the country”s Syrian overlords and eventually resigned in October 2004, a month after a decision to change Lebanon”s laws and extend the term of President Emile Lahoud.
The pro-Syrian Lahoud, meanwhile, denied a U.N. claim that he was one of two key officials who received a phone call minutes before the killing.
Another Lebanese ally of Damascus called the findings a "political analysis" that lacked evidence, but politicians opposed to Syria praised the report, with one describing it as a "clear condemnation" of the Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus that existed then.
"I think the report is far from professional and will not lead us to the truth," Mehdi Dakhlallah, the Syrian information minister, said in an interview on Al-Jazeera television from the Syrian capital.
He said the report, about which he had seen media reports but did not have an official text, was 蔴 per cent politicized" and "contained false accusations."
The report of the U.N. probe, submitted to the U.N. Security Council late Thursday, implicated top Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials in the Feb. 14 assassination of Hariri in massive bombing in Beirut that also killed 20 others.
Hariri”s death sparked demonstrations against Syria and intensified the international pressure on Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, which it eventually did.
The probe”s report comes at a time of increased U.S. pressure against Syria to stop interfering in Lebanon, stop allowing anti-American insurgents to cross its border into Iraq and to refrain from supporting Palestinian militant groups opposed to U.S. Mideast peace efforts. Syria has denied all the accusations.
In one of the most critical parts of the U.N. report, chief investigator Detlev Mehlis said that Syria must cooperate if the continued investigation is to succeed. The probe, which was ordered by the U.N. Security Council April 8, was extended for a second time by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan until Dec. 15.
Earlier this week, a U.S. official and two U.N. diplomats said the United States and France were preparing new Security Council resolutions critical of Syria over its alleged involvement in the Hariri assassination and alleged supplying of arms to militias in Lebanon.
The report also raised questions about Lebanon”s pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, who it said received a phone call minutes before the blast from the brother of a prominent member of a pro-Syrian group, who also called one of the four Lebanese generals, Raymond Azar, who have been arrested in the probe.
Lahoud”s office issued a statement in which it "categorically" denied reports that Lahoud received such a phone call before the assassination, saying "there is no truth to it."
The statement said the accusation was part of continued campaigns against the president and the office "and the national responsibilities he shoulders and will continue to do so at this delicate stage in Lebanon”s history."
Since the arrest of four Lebanese generals in August as suspects, anti-Syrian groups have focused on Lahoud, demanding his resignation. Lahoud has refused to step down, saying his hands are clean and that he supports punishing those found guilty of killing Hariri.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who is backed by the Hariri family and the anti-Syrian majority in Parliament, declined immediate comment on the report, saying he wants to read it before convening Cabinet to discuss it.
Dakhlallah, the Syrian minister, said the investigation led by Detlev Mehlis was biased against Syria and his report was "part of a pressure campaign against Syria which does not stop at accusing Syria of anything evil that happens in the world."
This report "is contrary to the most essential conditions and methods of investigation," he said. "I don”t believe we are closer to the truth. On the contrary, probably there is a kind of deception which runs against the truth, against the interest of Syria and Lebanon and against stability in the region," the Syrian official added.
Asked if Syria would end cooperation with the investigative process, Dakhlallah said Syria would wait for clarifications of the content of the report.
Wiam Wahhab, a pro-Syrian and environment minister when Hariri was killed, said the report contained nothing new and called it a piece of "political analysis" that did not prove anything. He told The Associated Press that Mehlis "clearly listened to political opinions and interpretations" by those opposed to Syria.
Anti-Syrian legislator Butros Harb praised the report as a "turning point on the road to uncover the murderers."
Samir Franjieh, another anti-Syrian lawmaker, said he was surprised by the volume of information presented in the report, "particularly in determining responsibilities."
He described the findings as "clear condemnation against the Lebanese and Syrian (security) apparatuses."
Both lawmakers said Lahoud should take responsibility and step down.
The leader of a Damascus-based radical Palestinian group, whose name was mentioned in the report, also criticized the findings.
Ahmed Jibril of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command said the report is "politicized" and called the accusations "unfair."
The report said that some of the Lebanese suspects in custody coordinated, among others, with people from Jibril”s group in Lebanon in Hariri”s assassination. But Jibril said the report based the accusation on an unnamed witness "who can be a member of the Israeli Mossad" intelligence agency.
Jibril, in an interview with al-Jazeera, said the report was part of a "conspiracy targeting the entire region."
In Israel, officials on Friday called for changes in the Syrian leadership.
"I think there needs to be change in Syria," said Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres, adding that the United States and France should take the lead in deciding on an international response to the findings. Referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his relatives in positions of power, Peres said: "If it is true that the (Syrian) government is involved in the murder (of Hariri), this will shake up the rule of the Assads," Peres told Israel Radio.
Ephraim Halevy, former chief of Israel”s Mossad spy agency, said it was not necessary to prove a direct involvement by Assad.
"The head of the Syrian pyramid is Bashar Assad," Halevy told Israel Army Radio. "I don”t think … there is any doubt that this was an extensive and coordinated operation that was planned for many months. Lots of people from the Syrian elite were involved."