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Syria Opposes UN Bid for Beirut Queries

Syria opposes the UN request to question six of its officials in Beirut about the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister because their presence could cause friction between the two countries, Syria's UN ambassador said Tuesday.

Fayssal Mekdad, the ambassador, said Syria has offered chief investigator Detlev Mehlis the chance to interview the Syrians at offices in Cairo, the Golan Height, Vienna or Geneva.

"We hope that Mr. Mehlis does not rule out all these possibilities, because at the end of it what's requested is the substance — not the form," he told The Associated Press.

According to Lebanese officials and media, Mehlis has summoned the six senior security officials, including Syrian President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, Gen. Assef Shawkat, chief of Syria's military intelligence service, for questioning over the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

A UN interim report into the Feb. 14 assassination implicated Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services and accused Syria of only limited cooperation.

Syria has repeatedly denied any role in Hariri's killing, but its opponents in Lebanon accuse Damascus of ordering the slaying because Hariri had increasingly resisted Syria's control of Lebanon. Syria withdrew its soldiers from Lebanon in April under intense international pressure, ending a 29-year presence in its smaller neighbor.

Mekdad said Mehlis requested to interview the Syrian officials — whom he did not identify — at the UN commission's headquarters at the hilltop Monteverde Hotel east of Beirut.

"Our view is that bringing back our people to Lebanon is really sensitive, sensitive for our own people and for the Lebanese," Mekdad said.

Mekdad reiterated Syria's "readiness to cooperate" with the investigation of Hariri's assassination in a bombing in Beirut that killed 20 others.

If Mehlis does not want to "create more complications in Lebanese-Syrian relations, then we think our offer is a generous one and he should use it," Mekdad said.

"If Mr. Mehlis has other ideas, Syria is ready to discuss things flexibly with him," Mekdad added.

When asked whether Syria was totally ruling out any interviews in Lebanon, Mekdad did not answer directly, instead reiterating that Damascus does not want to further complicate its relations with Lebanon.

The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution on Oct. 31 warning Syria of possible "further action" if it refuses to cooperate with the UN investigation.

Mehlis' probe has been extended until Dec. 15 and the United States, France and Britain, which co-sponsored the resolution, pledged to pursue tough measures if Syria fails to comply.

The resolution requires Syria to detain anyone the UN investigators consider a suspect and let investigators determine the location and conditions under which the individual would be questioned.

It also would freeze assets and impose a travel ban on anyone identified as a suspect by the commission, though council members say this provision will not be implemented until after Mehlis' final report in December.

After the resolution was adopted, Syria announced that it was setting up its own investigation into the Hariri assassination.

(Chinadaily.com via agencies November 16, 2005)

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