UN to seek more time in Hariri probe, Siniora says

BEIRUT (Reuters) — A UN team investigating the killing of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, will ask for an extension of its mandate until mid-December, the Lebanese prime minister said on Sunday.

A UN team led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis is due to report to the Security Council by October 25 on the February assassination that plunged Lebanon into its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The Security Council has already extended the inquiry’s original three-month deadline.

“I think [Mehlis] will take all the necessary measures so his mission continues until December 15, which was the period originally assigned to him by the Security Council,” Prime Minister Fuad Siniora told reporters, giving no explanation.

The Security Council ordered the UN investigation after a fact-finding mission concluded Lebanon was incapable of conducting a credible inquiry of its own. It gave Mehlis three months but he was allowed to ask for a maximum of three extra months, taking the probe to mid-December.

It was not clear why Mehlis might need more time, but diplomatic sources have said his team had not ruled out returning to Damascus for more interviews with Syrian officials.

UN investigators last month quizzed several Syrian officials over the assassination and the killing of 20 people in a truck bombing many Lebanese blame on Damascus.

Syria has denied any role in the bombing that killed Hariri or the ensuing string of blasts and assassinations.

Hariri’s killing sparked mass anti-Syrian protests in Beirut that forced Damascus to bow to international pressure and end a 29-year military presence in Lebanon in April.

New security chiefs?

A UN official declined to comment on a possible extension to the inquiry but diplomatic sources said it was up to the Security Council to decide if Mehlis would get more time.

“The decision to extend the mandate is the sole sovereign decision of the Security Council,” one source said. “Either way, he must report to the Security Council on October 25.”

Mehlis left Beirut on Sunday, airport sources said. It was not clear when he would return.

Neither side has named the Syrian officials interviewed by UN investigators but political sources in Lebanon say they include senior intelligence officers working in Lebanon at the time of the blast and their commanders in Damascus.

Lebanon has already arrested four pro-Syrian generals in connection with Hariri’s killing and charged them with murder.

Three of those security chiefs lost their jobs after May-June elections ushered in a parliamentary majority critical of Syria’s domination of Lebanese politics after the civil war.

With a string of bombings shaking the country, the government has been criticised for failing to replace them.

Siniora said new security chiefs would be named after a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

“I am very hopeful we can successfully pass this stage and it will be an important step in ensuring stability and security in the country,” he said after meeting pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, who must sign the decree to appoint them.

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