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US Says Hariri Assassination Probe Should Proceed Unhindered


The United States said Friday the U.N. investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri should proceed without any hindrance or obstruction. The comments follow a report Syria may be trying to make a deal sparing top leaders in Damascus from punitive action in the case.

Officials here say the United States expects the Hariri probe to continue free from interference, and that chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis will be able to follow the facts in the case wherever they lead.

The comments follow a Washington Post report Friday that Syria has been trying to negotiate a deal that would have the effect of insulating its top leadership from punitive action, if the Mehlis investigation links Damascus to the assassination.

Mr. Mehlis, a German prosecutor, took his investigation to Syria this week after weeks of work in Beirut that led to murder charges against four high-ranking Lebanese security officials, all of whom with close ties with Syria.

The newspaper quoted U.S. and European officials as saying that Syria in recent weeks has been inquiring about the possibility of a deal under which it would hand over unnamed security officials in exchange for assurances that any trial would not point fingers at higher authorities in Damascus.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said there has been no discussion between the United States and Syria on such a matter, and that he had nothing to say about such contacts Syria may have had with others.

But he said the United States expects a continued unfettered investigation by Mr. Mehlis with full Syrian cooperation, because he said the Lebanese people are owed an explanation about who was behind the car-bombing killing of Mr. Hariri. "What we expect is that Mr. Mehlis [will] enjoy full independence in his investigation, and that his investigation follows the facts, wherever they may lead," he said.

Mr. McCormack spoke as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was having a luncheon meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, dominated by discussion of U.N. reform following last week's global summit on the issue in New York.

In a brief talk with reporters afterward, Mr. Annan said it would be imprudent and premature for him to comment on the Hariri investigation pending the report due from Mr. Mehlis next month, but he said he has had no contacts with the Syrians about a possible deal. "I would suggest that we await the outcome and we study the report before we decide. I have not received any approaches from the Syrians that they want to make a deal, and besides at this stage, no Syrian has been accused yet," he said.

The Washington Post said Syria was interested in a deal similar to the one Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi made several years ago to end international sanctions imposed for his country's role in the 1988 bombing of a U.S. Pan Am airliner over Scotland.

Libya handed over two intelligence agents linked to the bombing for an international trial in a move that began the Libyan government's political rehabilitation.

The newspaper quoted a senior State Department official as saying there was universal support for an unfettered investigation of the Hariri case, and that any Syrian effort to influence the outcome was a dead-end proposition.