The US, 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 UN probe or face possible sanctions.
The call was contained in a strongly worded draft resolution that orders Syria to make the suspected officials or individuals "fully and unconditionally available" to investigators who have accused Syria of obstructing their work.
That language was a clear attempt to pressure Syria into giving the probe access to top security officials -- possibly including the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad -- who may have been involved in the February 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri.
In a report released last week, Mehlis implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the assassination and said Syria was not cooperating fully with his probe. Syria hotly 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.
US President George W. Bush insisted yesterday that the UN hold Syrian leaders "accountable for their continuing support of terrorism."
Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a phone conversation yesterday with Assad, welcomed Syria's stated willingness to cooperate with the investigation and emphasized that the council must proceed carefully.
The two discussed the "urgent need for cautious action by the international community in order to prevent the emergence of new sources of tension in the region," the Kremlin said in a statement.
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 the chief UN investigator, Detlev Mehlis.
"I think we've learned something about trying to interview witnesses in an authoritarian society," US Ambassador John Bolton said in a reference to US 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, US Ambassador John 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 fully with Mehlis' probe.
Syria's UN Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad told the council on Tuesday that every paragraph in the Mehlis report deserved to be refuted. He criticized Mehlis for accusing Syria before the end of the investigation.
The commission "should not have pointed the finger or cast doubt on anybody," he said. Syria "has cooperated faithfully and sincerely" and will continue to do so, he said.
Under the draft's provisions, Syria would also be required to renounce terrorism and "commit itself definitively to cease all support for all forms of terrorist action and all assistance to terrorist groups and to demonstrate this undertaking through concrete actions."
Mehlis has received an extension of his mandate until December 15, which he told the council offers "yet another opportunity for the Syrian authorities to show greater and meaningful cooperation."
He said Syria has agreed to provide the autopsy report of Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, who was questioned by investigators and purportedly committed suicide in his office on October 12. Kenaan effectively controlled the Lebanese government for 20 years as Syria's intelligence chief.
Syria said Kenaan committed suicide, but there have been allegations he may have been killed in an attempted cover-up of Syrian involvement in Hariri's killing.
Mehlis also requested stepped up security for his team of 30 investigators from 17 countries.
"The commission has received a number of threats which were deemed, in the assessment of our security personnel, to be credible," he said.
(Chinadaily.com.cn via agencies, October 26, 2005)