UN demands Syria co-operate in Hariri probe

UNITED NATIONS - The UN Security Council has voted unanimously for a resolution demanding Syria co-operate fully with a UN probe into the death of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri or face possible "further action".

The United States, France and Britain sponsored the measure in response to a tough report earlier this month by a UN commission that said Syrian security forces and its Lebanese allies organised the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others in Beirut on Feb. 14.

The report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who heads the UN probe, also accused Syria of lack of cooperation and named senior government officials as suspects, including General Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and head of military intelligence, as well as Assad's brother, Maher Assad.

In an effort to get the resolution adopted 15-0, the Western nations agreed to delete a specific reference to economic sanctions. Instead the resolution would consider possible unspecified "further action" if Syria did not comply. Russia, China and Algeria had threatened abstentions.

Nevertheless, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the council, "We have affirmed our just demands of the Syrian government - and made it clear that failure to comply with these demands will lead to serious consequences from the international community."

She said Syria had isolated itself and accused Damascus of false statements, support for terrorism and, interference in the region and "destabilising behaviour in the Middle East".

Some 11 foreign ministers or their deputies among the 15 Security Council members came to New York for the meeting and negotiated until minutes before the vote.

The resolution, number 1636, demands Syria co-operate "unconditionally" with the UN probe and orders Damascus to take into custody and make available to UN investigators people suspected of involvement in the killing.

It calls for a financial freeze and travel ban on individual suspects to be named by the Mehlis commission or the Lebanese government. But this demand was weakened and now any Security Council member can object to a name on such a list.

Syria's foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara, cited by Mehlis as giving false statements, vigorously denied any involvement of his government.

"It is clear for any person who has followed this issue throughout that Syria's cooperation was complete. I repeat: complete," al-Shara told the council. He said the probe was conducted in "near-medieval circumstances where the accused is presumed guilty before due process."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the Security Council had put Syria on notice that "our patience has limits," and that the people of Lebanon were owed a "better future."

Russia's UN ambassador Sergei Lavrov said the changes in the resolution removed "unnecessary and ungrounded threats.

Asked if the situation was similar to the council's march towards sanction against Iraq in the 1990s, Lavrov told reporters not to "overdramatize." But he said "we want this statement to be followed by specific action" from Syria.

And Algerian Foreign Minister Mohamed Bedjaoui, said that as the only Arab council member, "I would like to state here loud and clear that the cowardly assassination ... must not under any pretext go unpunished." But he argued against any "hasty threat of sanctions."

The death of Hariri, an opponent of Syrian domination of his country, transformed Lebanon's political landscape. The killing led Syria to pull out its troops from Lebanon after three decades and has put increasing pressure on Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud to resign.

France's foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, said the Security Council had "only one aim: the truth, the whole truth" about the assassination.

But Brazil also had hesitations about sanctions, with its foreign minister, Celso Amorim, saying any additional measure could only be taken by council members on the basis of facts.

- REUTERS

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