U.N. investigators have concluded that high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese officials were involved in the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The investigators charged officials, including Syria's foreign minister, with trying to mislead them.
After an exhaustive four-month investigation, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis provided a clear picture of the planning and execution of Mr. Hariri's assassination. But after a probe in which 400 persons were interviewed and 60,000 documents reviewed, Mr. Mehlis said his investigation is not complete
He presented his findings Thursday to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The 54-page report was also given to the 15-member Security Council, which meets next week to consider possible action against Syria.
In unusually strong language, the report concludes that the assassination was prepared over several months, and carried out by a group with extensive organization and considerable resources.
While not making any direct charges, the Mehlis report points a finger at senior Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials, saying there is converging evidence of their involvement. In his summary, Mr. Mehlis wrote, "it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge".
The report accuses Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara of trying to mislead investigators. It also notes that a key suspect in the assassination placed a call to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud moments before the blast that killed Mr. Hariri.
Even before release of the report, French and American diplomats began working to build a consensus on the Security Council favoring tough action against Syria. Before he saw the final report Thursday, Washington's U.N. Ambassador John Bolton suggested negotiations are progressing rapidly. "We've been in consultations and discussions with a number of other countries about what the contingencies might be and what our reaction might be," he said.
In the conclusion of its report, the Mehlis investigation team urged Damascus to clarify the many still-unanswered questions about the assassination, noting that many leads point directly toward Syrian security officials.
Mr. Mehlis earlier named four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals as suspects, and questioned seven Syrian officials in his probe. One of them, Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, committed suicide last week.
The report recommends that the investigation should be continued, with Lebanese authorities taking the lead, and should examine possible links with other bomb attacks that have killed and wounded journalists and other Lebanese political figures.
Syria has repeatedly denied involvement in the Hariri assassination. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quoted in a German newspaper as saying "we are 100 percent innocent".
Aware that a finding of Syrian involvement would be political dynamite, Secretary General Annan twice this week warned against politicizing the report. He told a news conference there is still a long process ahead in bringing to justice those involved in Mr. Hariri's death.
"Mehlis's report is the beginning, not the end, because the magistrates and others will have to follow through on the report and decide who to charge and who to bring to the dock," he said.
Mr. Annan is expected to act soon on a request from Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to extend the Mehlis investigation mandate though mid-December. The extension would allow Mr. Mehlis and his staff of detectives to explore "follow up measures to bring the perpetrators" of Mr. Hariri's assassination to justice.
Mr. Hariri's death in a bomb attack February 14 led to renewed calls for the withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon. U.N. officials certified in April that the military pullout had been completed, but questions remain about the continuing presence of Syrian intelligence operatives..