Syrian official in Hariri murder probe offers to resign

‘Damascus receives UN request to interview Assad’

DAMASCUS (AFP) — A Syrian general accused of involvement in former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri’s murder said Tuesday he is ready to resign, as Damascus acknowledged it has received a UN request to interview President Bashar Assad.

Brigadier General Rustom Ghazaleh said he was ready to step down or even die a martyr, in a television interview.

“If the leadership asks me to die a martyr, I am ready… and if they ask me to resign, I am also ready,” Ghazaleh, the former head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera news channel.

Ghazaleh denied accusations of corruption, including charges last week by Syrian former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam that Ghazaleh took $35 million from Lebanon’s Al Madina Bank which collapsed two years ago.

“This is all baseless, part of the unjust campaign against Syria,” he said. “Me and all of my relatives are ready to disclose our financial statements, and if they find any Syrian dime in any country, let them disclose it,” said Ghazaleh, whose interview was aired amid rumours in Beirut and Damascus that he had been killed.

“I am under investigation by the international commission, and I have submitted everything that I have concerning the financial situation to the commission,” he said.

A UN probe has implicated Lebanese and Syrian officials in the February assassination of Hariri that triggered protests which led to the end of Syria’s 29-year presence in Lebanon in April.

Ghazaleh was among a number of Syrian officials interviewed in Vienna last November by the UN commission of inquiry into the Hariri murder.

He was named in a UN probe report released in October as having had a conversation with an unnamed Lebanese official about eliminating Hariri several months before the ex-premier was killed.

Khaddam made explosive allegations in a television interview from Paris that Assad threatened Hariri just months before his murder, charges which led Syria’s ruling Baath Party to expel the former vice president.

In comments carried by the official SANA news agency on Tuesday, Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri called Khaddam a “traitor” who “betrayed his country and patriotic values.”

Following Khaddam’s allegations, the UN commission asked to interview Assad, Khaddam and Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa and has been awaiting an answer from Syria.

A Syrian official confirmed that Damascus had received the request from the UN probe, without giving details.

But Ahmad Hajj Ali, an analyst and ruling party member, said Assad could not be interviewed by the probe.

“That’s impossible because it would be an attack on [Syrian] sovereignty,” said Hajj Ali.

“Firstly because there is no judicial pretext allowing an interview between the president and the commission, and also because it would lead to a politicisation of the inquiry,” he told AFP. He said the UN request was a direct result of Khaddam’s incendiary allegations.

Ghazaleh said the “matter is up to the political leadership, and we are abiding by all international resolutions while protecting our national sovereignty … Assad is the symbol of national sovereignty in Syria.”

Khaddam in his interview also pointed a finger of blame at Ghazaleh, Syria’s vice consul in Lebanon before the troop withdrawal in April, and said he was to blame for the tensions in that country in the runup to the assassination.

“Rustom Ghazaleh behaved as if he had absolute power” in Lebanon, said the former vice president, adding that he had failed to convince Assad to have him replaced.

Meanwhile, pan-Arab daily Al Hayat reported that the UN probe’s outgoing chief, German Magistrate Detlev Mehlis, would hand over the reins of the inquiry to Belgian Judge Serge Brammertz around Jan. 10.

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