UNITED NATIONS – A U.N. probe into the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister has unearthed evidence that strengthens its suspicion of high-level Syrian and Lebanese involvement in the slaying, a report said Monday.
The report accused Syria of trying to hinder the probe into Rafik Hariri’s Feb. 14 slaying. The finding, released the same day that a leading anti-Syrian activist and witness in the U.N. investigation was killed in a similar Beirut bombing, raises the threat of Security Council action against Damascus — possibly including sanctions.
The team led by the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis said Syria had arrested and threatened relatives of one witness, Husam Taher Husam, shortly before he recanted earlier testimony last month.
“Preliminary investigation leads to the conclusion that Mr. Husam is being manipulated by the Syrian authorities,” the report said.
In October, Mehlis’ team had released findings that implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in Hariri’s slaying and said greater Syrian cooperation was needed. Syria denied involvement in the blast and accused Mehlis of bias.
The Security Council then passed a resolution demanding that Syria cooperate fully and threatening unspecified further measures.
Mehlis was to brief the council on Tuesday. Council diplomats would not say what the next step will be, and appear divided on whether to take tough action against Syria.
Algeria’s Ambassador Abdallah Baali said that Mehlis’ report showed Syria had generally cooperated despite some initial problems. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton was more critical, pointing to witness manipulation as an example of continued resistance.
“That is not cooperation, ladies and gentlemen, that is obstruction of justice by the government of Syria,” Bolton said.
The report said his investigators had identified 19 suspects in Hariri’s slaying, including five high-level Syrian officials interviewed in Vienna earlier this month and one whose interview was postponed. The six were not named, but U.N. diplomats there said Rustum Ghazale, the last Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon who was in charge when Hariri was assassinated, was among those interviewed.
The suspects also include four prominent Lebanese generals, under arrest in Lebanon, and a man under arrest in France.
Tension in the region ratcheted up earlier Monday when another car bomb killed a prominent anti-Syrian journalist and lawmaker in Lebanon, Gibran Tueni. His killing was the latest in a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon, and many quickly accused Damascus.
Mehlis had interviewed Tueni as part of his investigation and quoted him in the October report as saying Syrian President Bashar Assad had once threatened Hariri’s life. Tueni said Hariri had told him of the threat in 2004.
Syria denied involvement in that blast as well. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said he will ask the United Nations for a new inquiry into Tueni’s slaying and previous bombings and to create an international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri assassination.
Hariri’s assassination set off anti-Syrian street protests in Lebanon and intense international pressure that forced Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon a few months later, ending nearly three decades of military domination.
While his previous report included information about evidence related to Hariri’s slaying, this time Mehlis refused to discuss many specifics to protect witnesses.
He did mention several new findings, including that two of the witnesses interviewed in Vienna claimed all Syrian intelligence documents about Lebanon had been burned.
Mehlis said a new witness came forward in October with evidence pointing again to an “organized operation” to kill Hariri. The witness told of efforts by both Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services to recruit agents for the job.
Mehlis also requested that his probe, which expires Thursday, be extended by another six months because Syrian cooperation was slow and more leads needed to be pursued. He has said he wants to step down and return to his job as a leading prosecutor in Berlin.