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Syria Seeks Deal with Hariri Assassination Probe


Syria has asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to broker a cooperation agreement between Damascus and investigators probing the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The U.S. ambassador has criticized the request as a delay tactic.

Syria has sent letters to Mr. Annan and to the Security Council saying it wants help in negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the commission looking into the Hariri killing. The agreement would cover issues such as how and where investigators could interview senior Syrian government officials, including President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law, who heads Syrian military intelligence.

Spokesman Stephane Dujarric says the secretary-general has receieved the letter, but has already repeatedly told Syrian authorities they must cooperate with the probe.

"We will answer the letter, but the process is pretty clear for us.... Our contact with the Syrians is to move the process forward to encourage them to cooperate. The details of Mehlis and how he conducts the interviews is for Mehlis to decide," Mr. Dujarric says.

In a unanimous resolution last month, the Security Council demanded full Syrian cooperation with German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who is heading the assassination probe. The resolution gave Mr. Mehlis until December 15 to finish the investigation.

Secretary-General Annan, who just returned from a Middle East trip, said Monday he had found regional leaders concerned that Syria could become another Iraq.

"They are all concerned and anxious to see Syria cooperate and to see the issue settled diplomatically and not lead to a situation that destabilizes possibly Syria and Lebanon," Mr. Annan says. "And I think the whole idea of everybody pressuring Syria, I think that that is the way to go, and, of course, there is concern in the region that they are worried that we are leading to another Iraq situation."

Syria's U.N. ambassador, Fayssal Mekdad, acknowledged that his country is asking for what was called a "cooperation protocol." He described is as a memorandum of understanding similar to what Mr. Mehlis signed with the government of Lebanon when it began its investigation.

"Syria is very willing to cooperate and well do our best," Mr. Mekdad says. "We hope that Mr. Mehlis takes this into consideration. We still need an understanding on the issue of a memorandum of understanding. If we send our people
somewhere, we must know what will happen to them."

Washington's U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, Tuesday expressed impatience with what he called Syrian attempts to obstruct the Mehlis Commission's work. He called on Damascus to comply fully with Security Council demands by the December 15 deadline.

"Resolution 1636 was very clear. It demands full and immediate Syrian cooperation. It does not give the Syrians leave to negotiate or ask for mediators or others to deal with Mehlis," Mr. Bolton says. "We are going to say clearly to the Syrians that they need to stop delaying and obstructing Mehlis's work and December 15 is getting closer every day, and the Syrians know it, too."

News agencies say Mr. Mehlis returned to Lebanon Tuesday to prepare for completing his inquiry. While he has a December 15th deadline, diplomats say he might go back to the Security Council before then for help in persuading Syria to cooperate.

The Damascus government has repeatedly denied any involvement in the February 14 bomb blast that killed Mr. Hariri and more than 20 others. But in an interim report last month, chief investigator Mehlis said he had evidence of Syrian and Lebanese officials' involvement in the deaths.

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