UNITED NATIONS, (Reuters) – The United States, Britain and France are pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution insisting Syria cooperate with a probe into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
A U.N. report on the investigation by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis on Thursday implicated high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese security officers as organizers of a plot to assassinate Hariri on Feb. 14. It said Syrian officials had failed to cooperate fully with the probe.
In Damascus on Monday, tens of thousands of Syrians, changing anti-U.S. slogans, protested against the U.N. inquiry they say unfairly blames Syria for killing Hariri.
The government-sponsored protests in Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo came on the eve of a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the report”s findings. The United States is trying to organize a ministerial-level council meeting for next Monday.
"This is true confession time now for the government of Syria," U.S. Ambassador John Bolton told reporters. "No more obstruction. No more half-measures. We want substantive cooperation, and we want it immediately."
But council members were not yet unified about how to pressure Syria and sanctions appear not to be in the offing at this time.
Nevertheless, a resolution insisting Syria cooperate with the investigation would put Damascus in an awkward position. If it refuses to cooperate, the United States and others will have more ammunition indicating Damascus is behind the plot. If Damascus agrees to additional interviews, it might incriminate its own officials.
FRANCE SUGGESTS WAITING
U.S. and British officials have spoken in favor of sanctions but getting them adopted might be difficult. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said sanctions considerations should be delayed until Mehlis finished his report on Dec. 15.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated that timeline might be acceptable.
"If people was to sequence it (a response), fine, then we can sequence it," Rice told reporters late on Monday en route to Canada or a one-day visit. "We would expect to consider next steps but I don”t want to get ahead of diplomacy here."
Unknown is what action Russia and China, two council members with veto power, will support but they are usually reluctant to endorse sanctions. Both nations said they were still studying the Mehlis report and waiting for Washington to produce a text.
France”s U.N. ambassador, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere said the council would have to put its "weight" behind finding the truth. "What is important is to have an effective action of the council and we are working on it," he said.
SEA OF PROTESTERS
Syrian protesters, waving Syrian flags and pictures of President Bashar al-Assad, rallied in Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo, saying Washington instigated the U.N. probe to pile pressure on Syria for its struggle against Israel and opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"We don”t fear America, down with America," some youths chanted. Others carried banners that read: "Syria is not another Iraq" and "Syria will not kneel to America."
Witnesses said several thousand protesters, mainly youths and state employees, were encouraged by the authorities to take to the streets, while schools allowed pupils out to join in.
Syria says the U.N. report does not provide enough evidence to indict any officials.
The U.N. report named senior Syrian security officials and their Lebanese allies as suspects in the Hariri murder that transformed Lebanon”s political landscape. The killing led regional power Syria to pull out its troops from Lebanon after three decades and has put increasing pressure on Lebanon”s pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud to resign.
Lebanon”s parliament majority bloc, headed by Hariri”s son and political heir Saad, renewed its call for Lahoud to go after the probe said Lebanese senior generals were suspected in the killing.
"We call on the president to shoulder his moral and political responsibility … and take the step that the Lebanese are hoping and waiting for," the Future Bloc said.
The U.N. report said one suspect had called Lahoud shortly before the blast that killed Hariri. The president”s office denied the incident and hinted Lahoud would remain in office.
Lebanon has already charged four generals, all pro-Syrians, with murder in connection with the assassination.
The country”s central bank has lifted its traditional banking secrecy and froze five accounts under investigation in connection with the assassination.