A United Nations-appointed investigator is reporting significant progress in his probe into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. As we hear from VOA's correspondent at the U.N. Peter Heinlein, the inquiry is coming to the conclusion that Mr. Hariri was probably killed, because he posed a threat to Syrian influence in Lebanon.
Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz chose his words carefully Wednesday as he briefed the Security Council on the progress of his Hariri assassination probe. Since he took over the investigation, he has developed a reputation as a meticulous and methodical investigator.
His predecessor, the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, had implicated Syrian intelligence officials and their Lebanese allies in a plot to kill Mr. Hariri in February 2005. Mehlis also accused Syria of obstructing his inquiry. Syria strongly denied the allegations, and condemned the Hariri assassination as a "heinous crime."
After Brammertz took over, he appeared to back away from Mehlis's sensational conclusions. He reopened the probe to consider other possibilities, and reported that Syria's cooperation had been 'satisfactory'. But in his latest comments to the Security Council, he says he has narrowed down the possible motives to one: a series of political setbacks to Syrian interests.
Brammertz told the Council the killers appear to have been spurred to action by a chain of events, including the U.N. Security Council's adoption of Resolution 15-59, demanding Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. Another factor was the international uproar created by the move by Lebanon's parliament to override the country's constitution to extend the term of its pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud.
In his latest report, Mr. Brammertz says his team of investigators is developing a "unifying factual theory" behind the crime. He suggests that one immediate cause for the assassination may have been concern that the anti-Syrian Mr. Hariri was likely to win in forthcoming elections.
"A number of factors shaped Hariri's environment in the period leading up to 14 February 2005," he said. "These include the inception of Resolution 15-59 and the implications of its implementation; the extension of the term of President Lahoud; the dynamics between Hariri and other political parties in Lebanon, Syria and other countries, and preparations ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for May, 2005. The Commission believes it is likely that a combination of these factors created the environment in which the intent to kill Rafik Hariri arose."
When asked whether he had concluded that Mr. Hariri was killed because he posed a threat to Syrian interests, Brammertz said that question would have to be decided by a tribunal.
"What we are saying is that we indeed believe, having enough information to support the hypothesis that the motive is most likely linked to his political activities," he added. "But still it will be up to a tribunal later on to determine in terms of responsibility who has to be considered responsible for this crime. It's not up to commission to say more."
Brammertz says the next step should be establishment of a tribunal to weigh the evidence and try suspects in the Hariri assassination. Lebanon's government has approved plans to establish the court, but the pro-Syrian speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, has not called the legislature into session to endorse the plan.