- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

BEIRUT — Syrian Interior Minister Brig. Gen. Ghazi Kenaan was found dead in his office yesterday, having apparently committed suicide three weeks after being questioned by U.N. officials probing the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Gen. Kenaan had been Syria’s top official in Lebanon for two decades, returning to Damascus in 2002 and rising to become the regime’s top security official a year later.

There had been widespread expectations that he would be implicated in the U.N. report expected in the next few days on the deaths of Mr. Hariri and 20 others on Feb. 14 in a massive explosion in downtown Beirut.

Four top Lebanese security officials — all of whom had long-standing ties to Gen. Kenaan — have been arrested.

President Bush and other U.S. officials, who have clashed with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad repeatedly in recent months, said they had no independent information about the minister’s death.

But Mr. Bush told reporters at the White House the U.S. remains unhappy with Syrian interference in Lebanon and what U.S. officials say is the failure to restrain the flow of fighters and funds to the insurgency in Iraq.

“We expect Syria to do everything in her power to shut down the transshipment of suiciders and killers into Iraq,” Mr. Bush said. “We expect Syria to be a good neighbor to Iraq.”

Lebanon responded to Mr. Hariri’s death with a wave of protests that, combined with U.S.-led international pressure, forced Syria to abandon its occupation in April after nearly three decades.

Syrian state press sources said yesterday that Gen. Kenaan died in a Damascus hospital of a single gunshot wound to the head inflicted in his office at about 11 a.m.

The news of the death was announced by Syria’s official news organization, a sign that the state wanted to get the information out.

A Syrian official who declined to speak on the record told the Associated Press that Gen. Kenaan shot himself in the mouth with a silencer-equipped gun. A colleague found him slumped at his desk and a pool of blood on the ground, the official said.

In an interview with a Lebanese radio station just an hour before his death, Gen. Kenaan denied as “baseless” charges that he had received bribes from Mr. Hariri and argued that Syria had played a positive role in Lebanon.

He added cryptically, “I believe this is the last statement I can make.”

The 63-year-old Gen. Kenaan occupied an ambiguous place in the Syrian regime, whose politics one Western diplomat described yesterday as a “thugocracy.”

He was a member of the “Old Guard” closely tied to former President Hafez Assad, but also an early supporter of his son, Bashar, who succeeded him. Gen. Kenaan was also, like the Assads, a member of the dominant minority Alawite tribe.

But Oklahoma University Middle East scholar Joshua Landis, now in Damascus, noted that Gen. Kenaan was known to be close to Mr. Hariri and had opposed efforts by others in Syria to support his rival, former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.

“If Washington were to turn to anyone to carry out a coup against Bashar, it would have to place Ghazi Kenaan at the top of the list,” Mr. Landis wrote in an analysis yesterday.

In June, the U.S. government announced it was freezing the financial assets of Gen. Kenaan and another Syrian general, seen at the time as one more sign of Washington’s unhappiness with the Assad regime.

Two letters from a Syrian intelligence officer obtained by The Washington Times implicate Gen. Kenaan in the transfer of $700 million in funds by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to a Lebanese bank ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

The intelligence officer also accused Gen. Kenaan of ordering the August 2002 killing of Gen. Mustafa Tajer, the deputy chief of military intelligence, because he informed Western intelligence agents of the money-smuggling scheme.

Many Lebanese yesterday scoffed at the suicide claim and insisted that Syria had murdered Gen. Kenaan to frustrate the Hariri investigation.

Just hours before the announcement of the suicide, Mr. Assad denied in an interview with CNN that Syria was involved in Mr. Hariri’s death.

“If indeed there is a Syrian national implicated, he would be considered as a traitor and most severely punished,” he said.

• David R. Sands in Washington and Paul Martin in London contributed to this report.

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