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UN Hariri Assassination Investigator  to Step Down as Lebanon Asks for Extension

U.N. diplomats say the head of the investigation into former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination is planning to step down. Syria is arguing that the results of the investigation should be reconsidered after a key witness recanted his testimony.

German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis has told U.N. officials he intends to quit as head of the Hariri assassination commission when its current mandate expires December 15.

That word came as the Lebanese government signaled it would ask for a six-month extension of the mandate.

Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Thursday there has been no official announcement about Mr. Mehlis's future. He added that Secretary-General Kofi Annan is talking to the German prosecutor about a possible extension. "Should the life of commission be extended, and we're not there yet, I remind you, we would be interested in having Mr. Mehlis remain associated with the work of the independent commission, should it continue, and on that the secretary-general and Mr. Mehlis are in contact," he said.

An extension of the Mehlis Commission mandate is considered a certainty. Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari this week said the mandate should be extended. He noted that several witnesses have not been interviewed, some new witnesses have been identified, and some evidence has still not been examined.

Mr. Gambari said the commission would interview five Syrian officials about the assassination December 5 and 7 in Vienna.

The interviews are the result of weeks of negotiations with Damascus over where the questioning should take place, but officials say Mr. Mehlis himself would not participate in the questioning.

A preliminary commission report in October pointed to high-ranking Syrian official involvement in the February bomb blast that killed Mr. Hariri.

But Syria this week demanded that the Commission's findings be re-evaluated after a key witness was shown on Damascus television saying members of Mr. Hariri's family had offered him money to implicate the officials. Syrian U.N. Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad Thursday said anyone trying to influence the investigation should be punished.

"I think two aspects should happen in this respect, first the Lebanese authorities take measures to call those who committed such practices to stop them and put them to court, and secondly we think in light of this, the commission of investigation, should also re-evaluate the false testimonies that were given to it," he said.

In comments carried by Lebanese newspapers Thursday, Mr. Mehlis accused Damascus of trying to obstruct his investigation. He rejected suggestions that the inquiry had been undermined by the witness shown on television recanting his testimony.

At U.N. headquarters Thursday, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the Security Council would reserve judgment on the case until it sees Mr. Mehlis's report. "In a criminal investigation, witnesses testify for various motives and they change their minds for various motives as well. It's all part of the investigation. We'll wait to say what Mehlis's overall report is," he said.

Ambassador Bolton called Mr. Mehlis's service extraordinary in light of the security risk involved in taking on the Hariri assassination case. The ambassador said he remains hopeful that the German prosecutor will stay on after his current mandate expires, but in a reference to the death threats commission members have received, he added "we have to … recognize there are limits of service that anybody can be expected to put up with."