Thursday, April 10, 2008

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday rejected suggestions to offer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad immunity in a U.N. probe into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in exchange for his help in reining in the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, told Miss Rice during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing that the idea had been raised by King Abdullah II of Jordan during his visit to Washington late last month.

Mr. Specter said he asked the king how Mr. al-Assad could be persuaded to help talk Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories into changing their ways.

“He said the item which is most on the mind of Assad is the action of the international tribunal, which could lead to his indictment, and raised the possibility that that might be in the mix,” Mr. Specter recalled. “It would be the most astounding plea bargain of all time.”

Miss Rice said she did not know “what the tribunal will produce,” even though many suspect Syrian involvement in Mr. Hariri’s 2005 killing. Any immunity for Mr. al-Assad would damage the “integrity” of the investigation, she said.

“I don’t think that it would be appropriate to suggest that we might be willing to limit the scope of the tribunal … because it might somehow implicate either the regime or the Assad family,” the secretary said.

“I know that has been on their minds, but I think that would be a very bad step — it would be bad for Lebanon and bad for international justice,” she said.

After the Hariri assassination in Beirut, outrage forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence there. Mr. al-Assad has repeatedly denied any involvement in the crime.

The West has accused Damascus of continuing to influence Lebanese politics through Hezbollah and other allies. Lebanon has not been able to elect a president for months because of political bickering.

Syria’s support for both Hezbollah and Hamas is seen as vital for their financing and activities. The United States considers both groups terrorist organizations.

The London-based Arabic-language daily Al Hayat reported yesterday that former President Jimmy Carter plans to meet exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus, Syria, next week.

Mr. Carter’s press secretary, Deanna Congileo, confirmed that he would visit Syria but did not comment on a possible Mashaal meeting.

On Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Mohammed Zuhair Siddiq, a Syrian thought to be a key witness in the Hariri assassination, disappeared while under house arrest in France.

The chief United Nations investigator in the case, Daniel Bellemare, said in New York that Mr. Siddiq was interviewed by his team but never responded to an offer to enter a witness-protection program.

Mr. Siddiq, who is wanted in Lebanon, was detained in France but was released in 2006 because Paris received no guarantees that he would not face the death penalty if extradited to Lebanon.

This article is based in part on wire service reports

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