By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006
UNITED NATIONS, June 10 -- A U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on Valentine's Day last year claimed "considerable progress" in pursuing the perpetrators, and gained unprecedented access to potential witnesses and suspects in the Syrian government, including President Bashir al-Assad.
Serge Brammertz, the Belgian head of the U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission, called on the Security Council to extend his mandate for at least another year to bring "a sense of continuity and stability" to a team of 179 investigators, analysts and translators. He also recommended that his commission play a "more proactive role" in investigating 14 other killings, bombing and assassination attempts in Lebanon.
Brammertz's 30-page report released today marked a change in tone from that of his German predecessor, Detlev Mehlis, who repeatedly complained about Syrian obstruction and suggested that the Syrian ruling elite may have killed Hariri in Beirut for challenging Syria's authority in Lebanon. Brammertz said that he is pursuing other possible motives, including suggestions that Hariri may have been killed by extremists or by Syrian officials concerned that he might expose their involvement in corruption.
But Brammertz's questioning of Assad and Vice President Farouk al-Shara about their relationships with Hariri and who reported to them from Syrian-controlled Lebanon at the time of Hariri's assassination indicated that he continues to suspect involvement by senior Syrian officials. He also asked them about the interaction between Syrian and Lebanese officials during that period. "Both the president and the vice president provided answers useful to the investigation," he wrote.
Brammertz said that Syria's cooperation was "satisfactory," citing its decision to arrange at least six interviews and provide documents on Syria's military and intelligence activities. But he also noted that he had not had a chance to assess the credibility of that information and that he plans to issue a series of new requests for interviews and documents. "Syria has responded to all of the commission's requests, and did so in a timely manner, and in some instances comprehensive responses were provided."
The report highlighted Brammertz's obsession with detail, focusing most of his attention over the past six months on a painstaking examination of the crime scene, and analyzing as many as 5 billion records of phone calls, intercepts and other communications to discern the perpetrators' strategy. He said that he expected to conclude his analysis of the crime scene by the fall, laying the foundation for a criminal prosecution of Hariri's killers.
Brammertz said he is entering a new and more dangerous phase in the investigation that will focus on individuals who commissioned the deaths of Hariri and 22 other people. That, he wrote, would increase "the probability of individuals or groups attempting to execute threats against the commission."
He dismissed a key development that supported Syria's contention that it played no role in Hariri's assassination. He said there "is no evidence to suggest" that a supposed Islamic extremist, Ahmad Abu Adass, who claimed responsibility for detonating the explosive that killed Hariri in a videotaped confession provided to al-Jazeera news network, had played any role in the murder. He said there was also no evidence that Adass was at the crime scene. Adass disappeared in January 2005, according to U.N. investigators.
Brammertz said his team was examining 25 fragments of human remains of a man they suspect may have set off the massive bomb packed in a Mitsubishi that exploded with the force of 1,200 kilograms of TNT. "At this stage, the commission prefers not to describe the person as a suicide bomber, it remains to be established whether the person detonated the device willingly or was coerced into doing so."