Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A rift has developed between Russia and the Western members of the U.N. Security Council over the probe into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri nearly two years after he died in a car blast.

In an attempt to help its ally Syria, which so far has been singled out as refusing to cooperate with the U.N. investigation, Russia has asked that all countries not fully cooperating be publicly named.

“Let us face it,” Moscow’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told the Security Council on Tuesday. “If we focus so hard on one country, why should we disregard completely or even not want to know what those countries are?”

Serge Brammertz, head of the U.N. probe into Mr. Hariri’s 2005 assassination and 15 other apparently politically motivated attacks, said last month he had sent more than 60 requests to a “significant number of countries” and more than 20 of them had not been answered, which impedes the work of his commission.

Mr. Brammertz did not name the countries, but Mr. Churkin said the council should ask him “to be more specific next time he reports to the council in March.”

The United States and France rejected the idea, saying it would distract from more important issues.

“Syria quite clearly falls into a category of its own, so I wouldn’t try to lump them all together” with other countries, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters yesterday. “The fact that Syria has been cited as not being fully cooperative in the past with the investigation was important because, let’s be frank, the signs pointed to some Syrian involvement [in the Hariri assassination] in some fashion.”

Alejandro Wolff, the acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said of the Russian initiative: “We don’t think that this is the right way to go.”

Still, Mr. McCormack said it should be Mr. Brammertz’s decision whether to disclose the names of the countries in question.

“If he thinks it’s useful, then we would support his decision to do so,” Mr. McCormack said. “If he decides that it is not in the interest of the investigation to make this information public, then we support his decision not to release those names.”

Damascus has denied involvement in the assassination, which took place soon after Mr. Hariri accused Syria of meddling in Lebanon’s affairs. Syrian troops left Lebanon later in 2005 after nearly three decades of de facto occupation. Syria still refuses to open an embassy in Beirut.

According to wire service reports, Security Council diplomats said in New York that supporters of the Russian proposal, such as Qatar, South Africa and Indonesia, pointed out that the council would not be seen as fair if it just cited Syria as failing to cooperate with the investigation.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari named France, which joined the United States in getting the council to approve the Hariri probe, as blocking a letter to Mr. Brammertz asking him to disclose all countries that are not cooperating.

“The Russian initiative is against singling out a country for political purposes,” Mr. Ja’afari said. “It goes toward knowing precisely those countries that have cooperated and those that have not.”

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