Syria, Lebanon Weigh Impact of Hariri Probe

A U.N. report tying Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials to the murder of Lebanon's former prime minister puts new pressure on Syria. Syria denies the charge and some Lebanese have mixed feelings about the implications.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

In Lebanon today, there were more calls to keep international pressure focused on finding the killers of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. A United Nations report released this past week said evidence showed that a massive car bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others in February could not have been carried out without the knowledge of the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services. Syria denies any involvement and calls the UN report political, but the accusations have rocked the Arab world. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from Beirut.

Peter, Mr. Hariri's son yesterday called for an international tribunal to bring his father's killers to justice. Today, another Lebanese opposition leader echoed that call and President Bush has also asked the United Nations to act quickly on this report. What's hoped for from the international community?

PETER KENYON reporting:

Well, many Lebanese here say that Syria may have ended its decades-long military presence in Lebanon this year amid the uproar that followed the Hariri killing, but the Syrian influence here remains strong and the opposition leader who spoke today, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, said while the Lebanese judicial system has done well so far, especially recently since late August when it carried out the arrest of four Lebanese generals, at some point an international tribunal may be needed. Now on the other hand, international courts can take years to do their work and the judgments are sometimes ignored, but there is a sense here that keeping international attention on this killing is a good thing and, of course, that's fine with the Bush administration, which is in the midst of a concentrated effort to isolate Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad.

YDSTIE: The UN Security Council takes up the issue on Tuesday. Is this seen as a welcomed development in Beirut?

KENYON: Well, up to a point. Having seen their country essentially run by Damascus for decades, many people here don't mind seeing President Assad under pressure on several fronts, not just the Hariri killing but also the flow of insurgents across Syria's border with Iraq. But when the talk turns to what the Security Council might actually do, then you get reservations. Walid Jumblatt in his news conference today said that sanctions have a poor track record around the world. He's worried that in this case they might further impoverish the Syrian people without doing much damage to President Assad or his regime.

YDSTIE: The UN report on Hariri's assassination describes a far-reaching plot allegedly involving senior officials in both the Lebanese and Syrian governments, and yet there's more investigating to be done.

KENYON: Well, there is. The investigation has been extended until mid-December. The story pieced together so far from witnesses, telephone records and other sources suggests that Hariri's troubles began after he objected to Syria's move to force Lebanon to amend its constitution so as to extend the term of the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. Lebanese opposition figures say Hariri was summoned by President Assad to Syria who told him he would break Lebanon if they opposed him. Syrian officials deny that comment.

After the extension passed, the report quotes a Lebanese general as saying, quote, "We're going to send him on a trip. Bye-bye, Hariri." One witness told the investigators that a white Mitsubishi van previously stolen from Japan was loaded with explosives and driven from a Syrian military base into Beirut where it exploded on February 14th killing Hariri. The report says an initial claim of responsibility by an alleged Islamic militant is not supported by the evidence. As far as further investigation, that includes phone calls, including one made minutes before the explosion to the cell phone of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. The man who says he made that call was arrested yesterday. Also more investigation into the involvement possibly of Syrian officials, including the head of military intelligence General Asef Shawkat.

YDSTIE: Mmm. What's the mood in Beirut since the report came out?

KENYON: At first, it was a bit tense. People kept their children back from school Friday. Security's been heightened. There had been a series of bombings as this report neared its final stages, but today for the second time since the report's release, there was a large crowd at the grave of the slain former prime minister, and again we hear the calls for justice for Hariri's killers and renewed calls for the resignation of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.

YDSTIE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Beirut. Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, John.

YDSTIE: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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