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Nations demand Syria make arrests

Associated Press
Published October 26, 2005

UNITED NATIONS - The United States, France and Britain on Tuesday demanded that Syria detain government officials suspected of involvement in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister and ensure their cooperation with a U.N. inquiry or face possible sanctions.

The call was contained in a strongly worded draft resolution that orders Syria to make the officials or individuals "fully and unconditionally available" to a U.N. inquiry that has accused Syria of obstructing its work.

That language was a clear attempt to pressure Syria into giving the U.N.-backed investigators access to top security officials - possibly including the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad - who may have been involved in the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri.

In a report released last week, chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the assassination and said Syria was not cooperating fully with his inquiry. Syria denies those claims.

The central challenge now for the resolution will be getting the support of Russia and China, which have been hesitant to use the threat of sanctions to back up a call for more Syrian cooperation.

President Bush insisted Tuesday that the United Nations hold Syrians "accountable for their continuing support of terrorism."

Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a phone conversation Tuesday with Assad, welcomed Syria's stated willingness to cooperate with the investigation and emphasized that the council must proceed carefully.

The new draft spells out a list of stern measures against Syria. It would slap an immediate travel ban and asset freeze on suspects identified by the commission.

It states that Syria must allow interviews to take place outside the country and without Syrian official presence - a key concern of Mehlis, the investigator.

"I think we've learned something about trying to interview witnesses in an authoritarian society," U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said, a reference to U.S. efforts to interview Iraqi scientists during its hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

If Syria does not fully cooperate with the investigation, the draft says the council intends to consider "further measures," including sanctions, "to ensure compliance by Syria."

In an appearance before the council earlier Tuesday, Mehlis urged Syria to help "fill in the gaps" about who orchestrated the car bombing that killed Hariri and 20 other people in Beirut.

"I cannot send 500 investigators, which I do not have, to Syria to look for documents because I do not know where I would find them," he told reporters after emerging from the council meeting. "It would be a good idea if the Syrian authorities made an extra effort by themselves."

France's Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere said: "We should not tolerate anything short of full cooperation."

The Security Council could hold a meeting Monday, attended by the 15 members' foreign ministers, to adopt the resolution, Bolton said. Diplomats say the presence of the foreign ministers would give the resolution added weight and increase pressure on Syria.

Syria has called Mehlis' report biased, politicized and an American plot to take over the region, and is likely to oppose the new draft resolution. Syrian officials and Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, deny they were involved in Hariri's assassination and have insisted they have cooperated with Mehlis' inquiry.

Syria's U.N. Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad told the council Tuesday that every paragraph in the report deserved to be refuted, and criticized Mehlis for accusing Syria before the end of the inquiry.

[Last modified October 26, 2005, 00:46:05]

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