U.N. officials are defending themselves against allegations that they tried to conceal the identities of senior Syrian officials implicated in the plot to assassinate former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The suspects' names were included in earlier drafts of a report on the killing, but were deleted from the version released to the public.
The Hariri assassination report German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis gave to Secretary-General Kofi Annan Thursday named as suspects several high-ranking Syrian officials.
The names included Maher al-Assad, younger brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as his brother-in-law, Syrian military intelligence chief Assef Shawkat. In one of its most explosive sections, the report says both men attended a September 2004 meeting at which the Hariri assassination was planned.
But Mr. Mehlis says he went back and deleted the suspects' names Thursday, after learning the report was to be made public. Copies of the document received by most news agencies did not identify the suspects.
The attempt to suppress their names failed, however, when earlier drafts of the report were leaked to reporters. The deletions raised suspicions that Secretary-General Annan had pressured Mr. Mehlis to protect the suspect's identities.
But at a hastily arranged news conference Friday morning, the prosecutor strongly denied suggestions that he had been pressured.
"I decided that as the report was supposed to be made public, that these names should not be in the report, because it could give the wrong impression that this was an established fact, and for that [reason] these names never appeared in the conclusions, named by a witness, and the presumption of innocence stands, so that was basically the reason, but no one influenced me, and I'm not one who would accept changes from outside," he said.
During a testy exchange with journalists, Mr. Mehlis said he stands by his conclusions. He brushed aside suggestions that the leaking of suspects' identities in any way undermines the credibility of his report.
"I hope not, but it very much depends, if you believe what I'm telling you or not; if you don't believe it, it's undermining the credibility, if you do, it's not," he explained.
U.N. spokesman Stefan Dujarric Friday said Secretary-General Annan has extended Mr. Mehlis's mandate until mid-December. He also denied there had been any attempt to influence Mr. Mehlis's investigation or his report.
"The secretary-general has insisted throughout the process on the importance of the independence of the Mehlis investigation," he said. "This is Mr. Mehlis's investigation. This is his report. The secretary-general has at no time made any attempt to influence the content of the report."
The spokesman attributed the release of suspects' identities to what he called an "unfortunate clerical error."
Washington's U.N. Ambassador John Bolton dismissed the controversy, saying it was distracting from the main findings of the investigation. He added, "the report's substance does not change, no matter what version you have."