BEIRUT (AP) â€” Under intense pressure to cooperate with a UN probe into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Syria on Saturday invited the world body’s chief investigator to Damascus to meet Syrian authorities within days.
But in a move sure to turn the heat further up against Syria, a Lebanese magistrate accused four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals of carrying out the massive February 14 Beirut bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others and ordered they be held in police custody until a trial begins to hear official charges against them.
The generals ran this country’s pro-Syrian security forces when Hariri was killed and were taken in for questioning Tuesday after a top United Nations investigator alleged they may played a role in Hariri’s murder.
A fifth Lebanese suspect identified by the UN team, former pro-Syrian lawmaker Nasser Qandil, was also questioned but released.
Many Lebanese blamed Syria and its Lebanese allies of planning Hariri’s murder, which sparked massive protests, forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence here and saw Lebanon’s pro-Damascus government toppled.
Despite denials by Syria and its Lebanese allies of any involvement in the killing, Damascus has been accused of failing to cooperate with a UN investigation team headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who has said he is willing to meet Syrian officials in their country.
But in a terse statement released by its state-run news agency, Syria on Saturday invited Mehlis to visit Damascus and meet Syrian officials on Monday or Tuesday, although it was not immediately clear who he would be meeting.
A Syrian foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media, said Mehlis, who has welcomed Syria’s invitation, was unavailable on either of those days and would visit on September 10 instead.
Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, invited Mehlis “in the framework of Syria’s readiness to cooperate with the international investigation.” “Mr. Mehlis is welcome in Damascus,” Mekdad told Al Arabiya TV by telephone from New York, adding that his country “has an interest in this investigation in order to eliminate all allegations and to prove that Syria has nothing to do at all with this case.” The arrest warrants against the four generals were issued by Lebanese investigating Magistrate Elias Eid, who spent two days questioning the men who were among Lebanon’s most powerful figures during Syria’s three-decade control over Lebanon, which ended in the wake of Hariri’s death.
Eid accused the generals of “deliberate killings, participation in the planning, execution and bombing that led to the killing [of Hariri and 20 others] …, carrying out terrorist acts and possession of arms and explosives,” according to a senior court official who revealed the contents of the warrants to the Associated Press.
If officially charged on the basis of the accusations, the generals will face counts that carry the death penalty, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was unauthorised to speak to the media.
Eid’s order means the four generals will be held in custody until a date has been set to hold their trial, at which official charges are expected to be laid.
The suspects are Brig. Gen., Mustafa Hamdan, current commander of the Presidential Guards; former General Security chief Maj. Gen. Jamil Sayyed; ex-director general of Internal Security Forces, Maj. Gen. Ali Hajj; and Brig. Gen. Raymond Azar, the former director general of military intelligence.
Eid’s decision came after consolations with Lebanese Prosecutor-General Said Mirza, who has issued preliminary criminal charges against the four generals.
Chief UN investigator Mehlis, who left Beirut on Saturday to Geneva, has said there were no Syrian suspects so far in Hariri assassination, but the UN team has accused Damascus of delaying its investigation by refusing to turn over documents and ignoring interview requests.
Syria’s invite to Mehlis came a day after it was disclosed that Washington was reportedly planning to increase pressure on Syria to cooperate.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will try rally support when hosting European and Middle Eastern leaders during a meeting on the sidelines of the special session of the UN General Assembly in New York in two weeks, two senior US officials said on Friday.
Syrian President Bashar Assad will not be invited even though he is expected to attend the assembly session along with more than 100 government leaders, said the officials on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to announce Rice’s plans.
Mehlis is scheduled to travel to New York to brief UN
Secretary General Kofi Annan on the probe into Hariri’s killing, which triggered the diplomatic drive against Syria that forced it to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, which was completed in April.
UN investigators on Saturday also visited the Beirut headquarters of the Lebanese branch of Syria’s ruling Baath Party and briefly met its local chief, Kanso, who was also quizzed by investigators for five hours a day earlier.
Kanso said Friday’s questioning concerned his relationship with the four detained suspects plus former Syrian security chiefs who had worked in Lebanon, according to local media reports.
“We are not scared of anyone,” Kanso told reporters later Saturday, adding the four generals had in the past been “friends of all those who are now speaking against them.” No further details were provided.