- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

NEW YORK — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday called for an international inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, after an initial U.N. inquiry found that the Lebanese government, intelligence and police services had bungled the criminal investigation.

A bluntly worded 19-page report from a U.N. panel of forensic and police specialists found “a distinct lack of commitment” from the Lebanese authorities, and recommended the creation of an international inquiry committee with the authority and experience to interrogate witnesses, analyze evidence and conduct searches.

The report also said Damascus, the de facto power in Lebanon, bears responsibility for the political tension before the Feb. 14 assassination of Mr. Hariri, a charismatic figure who opposed Syrian control of Lebanon.

“The independently conducted [report] … raises some very serious and troubling allegations,” Mr. Annan wrote in the cover letter to the U.N. Security Council.

“The mission concludes that an independent, international investigation is needed … to reach conclusions as complete as possible about who was responsible for the assassination of Mr. Hariri and the deaths of 19 others.”

The eagerly awaited report was deemed so explosive by senior advisers that Mr. Annan delayed its transmission to the Security Council by almost five hours, so he could brief authorities in Damascus and Beirut about its contents.

“His sole focus this morning was this report,” said Fred Eckhard, spokesman for the United Nations.

The panel, led by Irish Deputy Police commissioner Peter Fitzgerald, does not implicate Syrian agents in the assassination of Mr. Hariri, but finds plenty of fault with both Damascus’ interference and Beirut’s failure to conduct an investigation that the Lebanese people would find credible.

“It became clear to the mission that the Lebanese investigation process suffers from serious flaws and has neither the capacity nor the commitment to reach a satisfactory and credible conclusion,” the report said, noting that even a fully staffed international inquiry could not do a satisfactory job “while the current leadership of the Lebanese security services remains in office.”

The report did not say Syrian agents were responsible for the attack, as many opposition leaders and groups think.

“Clearly, Mr. Hariri’s assassination took place on the backdrop of his power struggle with Syria, regardless of who carried out the assassination and with what aim,” the Fitzgerald panel said.

The report concluded that the Feb. 14 explosion was caused by TNT carried in a white pickup truck, and suggests that the wide veil of debris could mimic a similar bomb placed below ground — a prevailing theory that would implicate Syria and its superior intelligence network.

Security cameras outside a bank branch recorded the truck traveling the convoy route at suspiciously slow speed.The tape does not show the blast, but investigators said the vehicle “would be exactly at the center of the explosion” one minute before Mr. Hariri’s armored limousine drove past.

Mr. Hariri was pronounced dead at the local hospital and identified by his physician using body marks and dental records.

At the time of the blast, Mr. Hariri apparently had given up on state security and was relying on his own security detail.

The report also rejected the leadership role of the sole suspect in custody, a 22-year-old Palestinian-Lebanese man who it said had “no history of extremism.”

The Syrian ambassador to the United Nations angrily rejected the panel’s findings.

“I can categorically reject such allegations,” Fayssal Mekdad said. “There is no way Syria can do such things. This is morally unacceptable.”

The Lebanese government appeared to welcome the report. Lebanon’s Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud called on Mr. Annan yesterday “to do what’s necessary” to resolve the assassination.

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