Lebanon: UN reports progress in Syrian cooperation with Hariri murder probe

Serge Brammertz

16 March 2006 – In contrast to earlier problems with Syrian cooperation, the United Nations panel looking into last year’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri today reported progress in this “critical area,” with a common understanding reached regarding access to individuals, sites and information.

Noting that Damascus has signalled its intention to fully comply with Security Council resolutions on the issue, the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) says in its latest report that it intends to request “full, unhindered and direct access” to documents, facilities and sites, as well as interviews with Syrian citizens, after earlier reports pointed to Syrian involvement.

“Despite these encouraging steps, it is important to note that the Commission will ultimately judge cooperation of the Syrian authorities on the merits of the information provided and promptness with which its requests are being accommodated,” UNIIIC Commissioner Serge Brammertz cautions in his report to the Council.

“The coming weeks will prove whether our requirements will be fulfilled, and our cautious optimism was justified,” he said today in presenting the report to the 15-member body in open session.

In it, he writes that a significant number of new lines of inquiry identified since the start of the year have enabled faster-than-expected progress and the Commission is “confident that its support to the Lebanese authorities will result in a successful outcome to the investigation within a realistic time-frame.”

“This understanding will be tested in the upcoming months,” he observes, stressing that the Commission “looks forward to receiving timely and relevant responses to its requests, as agreed by the Syrian Government.”

Mr. Brammertz writes that a significant number of new lines of inquiry identified since the start of the year have enabled faster-than-expected progress and the Commission “is confident that its support to the Lebanese authorities will result in a successful outcome to the investigation within a realistic time-frame.”

UNIIIC, set up after an earlier UN mission deemed Lebanon's own investigation seriously flawed and Syria primarily responsible for the political tension preceding Mr. Hariri’s murder, has already reported finding evidence pointing to both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in the bomb attack, which killed the ex-premier and 22 others.

In the latest report, Mr. Brammertz discusses the possibility of a tribunal “of an international character” to judge any suspects charged in the murder, notes a high level of professionalism and experience in terrorism on the part of the perpetrators, and reports that he has been promised a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the upcoming month.

He also details UNIIIC’s expanded mandate to assist Lebanon in the investigation of 14 other terrorist attacks committed in Lebanon since October 2004, noting certain common characteristics in these crimes.

“With the expansion of its mandate and the prospect of a tribunal of international character on the horizon, the work of the Commission has entered into a new phase,” notes Mr. Brammertz, who took over as head of UNIIIC from Detlev Mehlis.

Talking to reporters after the Council session, he said the Commission now had a much better understanding of the crime and modus operandi. But “it is quite impossible for me to predict if it takes three months or eight months,” he replied when asked whether he would be able to complete the probe within the current three-month mandate.

In a press statement after the open session, the Council President for March, Ambassador César Mayoral of Argentina, said members “took positive note of the common understanding between the Commission and the Syrian authorities regarding Syria’s required full and unconditional cooperation with the investigation on legal and operational matters.”

Praising UNIIIC for its work so far, Ambassador Boutros Assaker of Lebanon told the open session of the Council that punishing “those involved in this enormous terrorist crime, whomever and wherever they are… will reinforce stability in Lebanon and throughout the region.”

Mr. Hariri's assassination in February 2005 led to renewed calls for the withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence agents, who had been in Lebanon since the early stages of the country's 1975-1990 civil war. Syria withdrew its troops from its smaller neighbour last April.

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