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UN Chief Sends Top Lawyer to Lebanon to Break Hariri Tribunal Impasse

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is sending his top legal adviser to Lebanon to try to break the stalemate preventing creation of a tribunal to try suspects in former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination. VOA correspondent Peter Heinlein has details from U.N. headquarters in New York.

The secretary-general told Security Council ambassadors Friday he is sending Undersecretary-General for Legal Affairs Nicolas Michel to Beirut to persuade Lebanese leaders to approve the Hariri tribunal. "I sincerely hope that his visit will help the political leaders of Lebanon in their efforts to proceed [with] constitutional procedures to ratify so that the special tribunal can be established as soon as possible," he said.

Creation of the Hariri assassination tribunal is at the center of Lebanon's worst political turmoil in decades.

The former prime minister and 22 others were killed in a Beirut bomb attack in February, 2005. He is the most prominent of a number of anti-Syrian Lebanese political figures killed or wounded in a series of attacks around that time.

An initial U.N. inquiry implicated senior Syrian intelligence officials in the murder. Damascus strongly denied involvement and condemned the killing, but international outrage led to the end of Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

Lebanon signed a deal with the United Nations to set up an international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the killings. But that deal must be ratified by the country's divided parliament. The pro-Syrian speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, has refused to convene the legislature to approve the document.

As head of the U.N. legal department, Undersecretary-General Michel helped draft the tribunal treaty. He told reporters his trip to Lebanon beginning Monday will be what he called an "open-minded, open-hearted effort" to win "broad support in the country for establishment of the tribunal".

"There is no doubt in my view that the whole logic requires the establishment of the tribunal. This is a necessity not only because justice must be done, but also because the investigation must be efficient. There must be a clear prospect for the establishment of the tribunal," he said.

Some Security Council diplomats are known to have discussed forcing creation the tribunal through a legally-binding resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. Pro-Syrian politicians in Lebanon have suggested such a move could push the country toward civil war.

Secretary-General Ban Friday avoided questions about the use of Chapter 7. "I am not in a position at this time to say anything about Chapter 7 issues," he said.

But when Undersecretary-General Michel was asked if his mission was a last-ditch effort to get the Lebanese to agree before the Security Council takes over the issue, he admitted that the matter is urgent.

"I think that everybody understands that there is an element of time here, and that it will be necessary for all those that are engaged in the investigation, the process of the establishment of the tribunal to have a clear prospect for its establishment in a not too remote future," he said.

Michel says his open-ended visit to Lebanon will be long enough to allow 'sufficient time' for all parties to make their points, and to hear his reassurance that the tribunal will be independent and impartial. He will report to the Security Council on his return to New York, and says it will be up to Council members to decide on any further action.

In the meantime, Secretary-General Ban is to visit Damascus during a trip to the Middle East later this month. He is scheduled to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.