Syrian Leader Discusses Lebanon with U.N. Agents

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United Nations investigators meet with Syria's president to ask about his country's possible role in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister. Officials in Damascus say the regime no longer seems worried that the issue could topple the government.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Syrian president Bashar al Assad was interviewed today by a UN investigator looking into the murder of a former Lebanese Prime Minister. An interim report to the Security Council last year said there was some evidence of Syrian involvement in the killing of Rafiq al Hariri. Damascus denied the charge, which led to strong international pressure on the Syrian government.

Now Syria doesn't seem very concerned that the UN investigation could threaten the regime as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, reporting:

Syria is sensitive about the notion of its head of state being seen to sit for questions in a murder investigation. In the visit, a Belgian prosecutor, Surge Brammertz, was billed as a reception and held under heavy security and near complete secrecy. A Syrian official familiar with the visit said Brammertz met separately with President Assad and Vice President Farouq al Shara, who was Foreign Minister at the time of Hariri's killing.

The officials said Assad denied Syrian involvement in the assassination and the president denied personally threatening Hariri at a meeting in August of 2004, as alleged by several Lebanese opposition leaders. Assad also said in case any Syrians are implicated, they should be tried in Syria.

The furious reaction to Hariri's killing forced Syria to abandon its military presence in Lebanon last year after nearly three decades. But many Lebanese say Syria maintains a powerful influence there, beginning with the pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud.

Last year's anxiety in Damascus, however, that the UN probe could threaten the government has quieted. Pro-regime analyst Samir Altaki (ph) says from the government's point of view, the situation changed dramatically when the original investigator, Detlev Mellace (ph), was replaced by Brammertz, who took a more low profile, and to Damascus, more respectful approach.

Mr. SAMIR ALTAKI (Political analyst): He was not aiming to use the investigation as a tool to embarrass. Mr. Brammertz is more attached to the notion of state sovereignty and he doesn't accept that the Security Council, they've become the policemen of the world.

KENYON: Syria's small circle of known opposition figures says the government clearly as free to flex its muscles as it ever has. Human rights lawyer Anwar Albooni (ph) says a wave of arrests has further stifled public debate. He calls torture a matter of routine for the security forces and says when one of his clients died in custody recently, he only found out after the body was returned to his parents. The family reported signs of torture on the body, but not recent. The parents were told their son died of a heart attack. Albooni says all voices that don't stick to the ruling Bath party line are being silenced.

Mr. ANWAR ALBOONI (Human rights lawyer): It is message to the international community. We are king here so we have all the control, all the power to push, to kill. So nobody think we will move from our chair.

KENYON: There are few Syrians willing to speak out against the government and ever fewer who speak as bluntly as the elderly Hythen Mali (ph), whose been in and out of Syrian jails since the 1950s. Mali is considered close to underground Islamist movements that are banned from operating in the open. He says like a number of repressive Middle East governments, the Syrian leadership wants the west to think that any attempt at regime change will lead to an Islamist takeover.

Mr. HYTHEN MALI (Political activist): I think the regime lie on this point. It's not true. But anyway, they want to keep the power. They rule the country as a kind of mafias, not as a government. They look at Syria like a cow and they need the milk. So they do not want to leave it if there is milk.

KENYON: There will be no ceremonies in Syria tomorrow to mark the first anniversary of the Syrian troop pullout from Lebanon. Brammertz and his investigative team are due to report their findings on the Hariri killing to the Security Council in mid-June. The UN is contemplating an international tribunal to hear any charges resulting from the investigation.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Damascus.

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