U.N. report details the plot to kill Lebanese leader Hariri

Assassination was reportedly planned for resistance to Syria

October 23, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

By the summer of 2004, Syrian officials, long accustomed to running neighboring Lebanon, were fed up with its prime minister, Rafik Hariri. So, a U.N. investigation found, they decided to kill him.

In chilling detail, often reading like a paperback thriller, the U.N. report traces months of plotting by top Syrian intelligence officials - including President Bashar Assad's powerful brother-in-law - and their Lebanese proxies. The plot included constant surveillance of Hariri's movements and the forced recruitment of a fake assassin to make a "suicide tape" to hide the real hands behind the bombing that killed Hariri in February.

The report was released Thursday. The political wrangling leading up to the assassination is well known.

In 2004, Assad bluntly ordered the Lebanese to amend their constitution to extend the expiring term of his ally, President Emile Lahoud.

Hariri, an ebullient billionaire who had almost single-handedly rebuilt the city center shattered by 15 years of civil war, objected.

On Aug. 26, he was summoned to Damascus for a meeting with Assad that lasted just 15 minutes. Hariri's relatives and allies recalled that he returned shaken; the report adds that they remember him saying Assad had threatened to "break Lebanon on your head."

The report includes the transcript of a taped conversation with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem two weeks before Hariri was killed. In it, Hariri called the meeting "the worst day of my life."

When Hariri protested against Syria's domination of Lebanon, the report said, Moallem told him that "we and the [security] services here have put you into a corner." He continued, "Please do not take things lightly."

Hariri eventually gave in; his bloc voted to change the constitution in a hastily called session of Parliament. Freshly printed posters of Lahoud went up in the streets, and preset fireworks went off as the vote was announced. In October, Hariri resigned in disgust.

As fall turned into winter, he signaled that he would join an anti-Syrian alliance building in Beirut. About this time, according to the report, Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, the commander of Lahoud's personal security force, said, "We are going to send him on a trip - bye-bye, Hariri."

Hamdan is one of four top Lebanese generals who have been charged with the killing by the Lebanese authorities on the recommendation of the U.N. investigator, Detlev Mehlis.

The others are Jamil al-Sayyed, former head of Lebanon's main internal security force; Ali Hajj, former chief of the Lebanese police; and Raymond Azar, former chief of military intelligence. Those three resigned shortly after the assassination.

A version of the report that was sent by e-mail to several news outlets contained, because of a computer glitch, some passages that had been removed from the official version. These named other suspects and had apparently been edited out because the suspects had not been charged.

They include Assad's brother, Maher, and his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, the head of military intelligence and widely regarded as the second-most-powerful man in Syria.

A diplomat intimately familiar with the work of the U.N. investigators said that, as they move forward, they are focusing mainly on Shawkat as the prime suspect behind the assassination.

The edited passages said that shortly after the Security Council passed a resolution last fall calling for Syria to remove its forces from Lebanon, Sayyed and other Lebanese security officials began traveling to Damascus to meet with Shawkat.

It said the final meeting took place about a week before the assassination, and included Hamdan.

These were the men, the report said, who set up a blanket surveillance of Hariri. Sayyed coordinated much of the operation with the other Lebanese officials, Ghazali and also, the report said, Ahmad Jibril, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a party that acts as an agent of Syria.

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