Syria imposes travel ban on six officials that U.N. commission wants to inverview

Thursday, November 10, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria -- A Syrian judicial committee probing the assassination of a former Lebanese leader has imposed a travel ban on six officials a U.N. commission wants to interview, a spokesman said Wednesday.

The newly formed committee also has started quizzing the officials, panel spokesman Ibrahim Daraji said.

Daraji did not name the six, but they reportedly include Gen. Assef Shawkat, the chief of Syria's military intelligence service.

President Bashar Assad's regime has been under heavy pressure since the U.N. Security Council demanded last month that Syria cooperate fully with the inquiry into the Feb. 14 assassination of ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, warning of further measures if it fails to do so.

The Security Council resolved on Oct. 31 to increase the commission's powers, giving chief investigator Detlev Mehlis the right to question anybody at any location and under conditions of his choice. It was not immediately clear how the travel ban would affect possible attempts by Mehlis to interview the six outside of Syria.

The Syrian government has said it is considering the U.N. request to interview the officials and has not yet given an answer.

Assad is expected to deliver a "political speech" Thursday touching on current political issues and the internal situation, and that could include an answer on whether Damascus will let U.N. investigators question the Syrian officials.

Pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat has identified Shawkat plus five other officials as those wanted for U.N. questioning.

The others are Maj. Gen. Bahjat Suleiman, former chief of Syria's internal intelligence; Brig. Gen. Rustum Ghazale, who was Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon when Hariri was killed; Gen. Jameh Jameh, Ghazale's assistant in Beirut; Gen. Abdul Karim Abbas, head of Syrian intelligence's Palestinian section; and Gen. Zafer Youssef, head of intelligence's communications and Internet section.

The list did not include Assad's younger brother, Maher Assad, who was named along with Shawkat in a copy of Mehlis' interim report to the Security Council last month.

Syrian Prosecutor-General Ghada Murad, who heads the Syrian committee, sent a letter to Mehlis inviting him for talks in Damascus on coordinating his probe and on searching "for the best means and mechanisms of cooperating between the two commissions," the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

Mehlis' report said Hariri's killing by a massive truck bomb in Beirut could not have been carried out without the complicity of Syrian and Lebanese intelligence. The report also accused Syria of providing only limited cooperation to the commission.

Syria rejected the report's findings, but said it will cooperate with the commission. It also took up the report's suggestion of appointing its own investigation, which is headed by Murad.

Murad told Mehlis that the Syrian commission "highly appreciates your mission and is keen to unveil the full truth, and expresses its readiness to cooperate and coordinate fully with you."

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa met Syrian leaders in Damascus on Wednesday about Damascus' differences with the Security Council on the Hariri probe.

Asked how Syria would respond to the U.N. commission's request to interview its six officials, Moussa said: "This issue should be dealt with between Syria and Mehlis, or between the United Nations and Syria. Consultations are under way now."

Meanwhile, a sit-in by hundreds of Syrians continued for a second week near the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to protest American pressures against Syria and express their support for their leadership.

"We are here to show solidarity with our country in the face of American and Israeli hegemony," said Jamal Hmeis, a 38-year-old doctor.

In the upscale Mazzah quarters of Damascus, some 200 teachers gathered outside the offices of the United Nations Development Program and handed a letter to the agency's executive director protesting the Mehlis report.

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