BEIRUT (AFP) -Some of Syria”s top officials are expected to submit to questioning by UN investigators in Vienna, ending a prolonged wrangle over the appropriate venue for the interrogations over the murder of five-time Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri.
There was no immediate confirmation of the timetable from the United Nations but two Lebanese newspapers reported that Tuesday was the day for the first interviews.
"Yes, they are meeting tomorrow (Tuesday) in Vienna," the French-language L”Orient-Le Jour newspaper quoted Japan”s permanent representative to the world body, Kenzo Oshima, as saying.
The top-selling An-Nahar newspaper had reported the same timetable on Sunday, adding that five senior officials were expected to submit to interview by UN chief investigator Detlev Mehlis and his team.
A source close 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."
Washington had led strong international pressure for progress in the inquiry ahead of a December 15 target date for its conclusion after the UN Security Council last month adopted a resolution demanding better cooperation from Damascus.
An interim report issued by Mehlis had implicated top Syrian officials over the February killing. Their names were supposed to have been dropped from the published text but an unexpurgated version was leaked to the media in controversial circumstances.
The deal on the venue for UN interviews with the officials came despite a renewed assault by the under-fire regime in Damascus on the credibility of Mehlis”s findings.
On Monday, the head of Syria”s rival inquiry into the killing demanded that Mehlis revise his interim findings implicating top officials after a witness recanted on state television.
"From a legal point of view, the Mehlis report has collapsed," Ibrahim Darraji told a joint news conference in Damascus with the witness, Kurdish former intelligence agent Hassam Taher Hassam.
"The ball is now in the Mehlis commission”s court — they based their findings on the statements of one person and he has now set the record straight."
Hassam had told state television that he had made "entirely false" statements against the Syrian president”s brother Maher Assad and brother-in-law Shawkat after being offered "astronomic" sums of money.
A statement from the UN commission confirmed that Hassam had testified before it but added that he had volunteered his testimony and had even expressed fear about the repercussions from the Syrian authorities.
"Hassam first approached the UN International Independent Investigation Commission at the end of June 2005 and identified himself as a former Syrian intelligence officer in Lebanon," the statement said.
"In his witness statement signed and dated September 1, 2005, Mr Hassam stated: ”I am here voluntarily to give a statement to the UNIIIC. I have not been threatened or forced to come here, nor have I been offered any promises or incentives to do so.”"
Twenty other people were killed along with Hariri in February”s bomb blast on the Beirut seafront, which sparked a wave of public outrage against Syria that prompted it to end a 29-year military presence in Lebanon two months later.