Lebanon charges 4 in assassination

Syria-backed generals linked to bombing that killed ex-premier Hariri

September 02, 2005|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Lebanese prosecutors filed preliminary charges yesterday against four Syria-backed generals suspected of helping to plot the massive car bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The four men were among five suspects detained for questioning this week by U.N. investigators probing the Feb. 14 assassination of Hariri. The investigators then shared evidence with the Lebanese authorities and asked that the four men be charged and kept in custody so that they would not flee the country.

Asked whether the men were suspected of helping to carry out Hariri's death or whether they were simply suspected of destroying evidence, U.N. chief investigator Detlev Mehlis of Germany didn't mince words. "They were to some extent part of the planning that led to the assassination," he said.

The charges go straight to the heart of the Syrian-Lebanese security network that ruled Lebanon for years. All four generals wielded tremendous power in the defunct system, which collapsed when Syria was pressured into pulling its troops out of Lebanon last spring.

One of the suspects, Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, is still the chief of the Republican Guard and a close aide to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. The other three - an ex-police chief, former head of General Security and ex-chief of military intelligence - stepped down amid the groundswell of anti-Syria sentiment sparked by Hariri's death. They were to be interrogated today by a Lebanese magistrate, who under Lebanese law would then decide whether they should be formally charged.

The accusations against some of Damascus' most prominent allies here add to the tremendous pressure already bearing down on neighboring Syria. Many Lebanese blamed Syria for the assassination, and their anger was so virulent that Hariri's death became a historical tipping point: Local and international outrage grew so intense that Syrian President Bashar Assad withdrew his soldiers and relinquished his grip on Lebanon.

But Syria has refused to cooperate with attempts to clear up the mystery of Hariri's death, Mehlis said. Assad's government has so far turned down U.N. requests that investigators be allowed to question Syrian officials in Damascus about Hariri's death, he said.

No Syrian suspects have been identified so far, but Mehlis warned that investigators won't be able to sort out the crime unless the Syrian government cooperates. The silence from Damascus has slowed the investigation, he said. The United Nations had hoped to finish its investigation by mid-September, but is now expected to ask for at least another month.

Mehlis said he grew more optimistic when he read recent comments in which Assad said that Syria would cooperate fully with the investigation.

"Without this cooperation we can't have the full picture," he said. "I'm ready and willing to go to Syria."

To the many Lebanese who have long maintained that Syria had a hand in Hariri's killing, the intransigence comes as little surprise.

"If they comply, they'll have a problem. If they don't, they'll have a problem," said Nassib Lahoud, a former lawmaker and prominent opponent of Syria's role in Lebanon. "They have to think about what's more damaging to the regime."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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