Chief UN investigator Serge Brammertz interviewed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Tuesday over Syria's alleged role in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, according to a source in Syria's ruling Baath Party.
"The meeting has ended and Brammertz returned to Lebanon," the source said.
Brammertz is in charge of a United Nations investigation into the killing of Hariri and 22 others in a truck bombing in Beirut in February 2005.
It was the first meeting between UN investigators and the Syrian leader since the inquiry opened in June last year. No indication on how the meeting went was immediately available.
Brammertz also met Syrian Vice-President Farouk al-Shara, who was foreign minister when Hariri was assassinated, the source said.
A Western diplomat said Brammertz had been expected to have separate meetings with Assad and Shara, in line with a deal reached with the UN investigation commission.
Syria has been in economic and political uncertainty since a UN report issued last year by Brammertz's predecessor, Detlev Mehlis, implicated senior Syrian security officials in Hariri's killing and said Syria was impeding the inquiry.
Syria denied involvement. A follow-up report by Brammertz in March said groundwork had been laid for better co-operation with Damascus. It did not clear the Syrian authorities.
Assad, who has looked relaxed in recent television appearances, has said that any Syrian official found to have been involved in the assassination would be tried by the Syrian legal system for treason.
Anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians say that under Syria's strictly top-down system of security and government, there could not have been Syrian involvement in the killing without Assad's knowledge.
Ibrahim al-Daraji, a law professor at Damascus University, said the meeting with Brammertz would help dispel a sinister image of the Syrian Government planted by its enemies.
"The fact that Brammertz is here shows that Syria has no problem in seeking the truth about the Hariri killing and co-operating with the inquiry," Daraji said.
"The technical and political standards governing the interviews remain a secret, but it is understood that Syrian sovereignty will be respected," he said.
Daraji said Assad was expected to deny vehemently that he threatened Hariri during a meeting on August 26, 2004 in Damascus that discussed the extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term in office.
"The president said publicly this was not true. It is simply not in his nature to threaten anyone," Daraji said.
Abdel-Halim Khaddam, a former vice-president who defected to Paris last year, has accused Assad of threatening Hariri and involvement in his murder.
(China Daily April 26, 2006)