The interior minister of Syria died in his office today, and the Syrian government said he committed suicide shortly after he gave a radio interview regarding a U.N. investigation into the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister.
The death of Ghazi Kanaan, a major general who formerly headed Syrian military intelligence in neighboring Lebanon for two decades, was announced a few hours after he finished the telephone interview with a Beirut radio station, the Voice of Lebanon. In the phone call, which Kanaan initiated, he denied a Lebanese television report that quoted him as admitting to U.N. investigators that he took part in corruption and bribery while serving in Lebanon.
The reported suicide stirred intense speculation in Lebanon, which is awaiting the U.N. investigative report on the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister who was critical of Syria's long military presence in his country. Hariri was killed along with at least 19 other people when a powerful remote-controlled bomb blew up his motorcade in Beirut. The killing prompted massive demonstrations in Lebanon against Syria and the Syrian-backed Lebanese government. Under international pressure to end its 29-year presence in Lebanon, Syria withdrew its troops by late April. Less than two months later, an anti-Syrian political alliance led by Hariri's son won a majority in parliamentary elections.
In June, however, two prominent critics of Syria -- journalist Samir Kassir and former Communist Party leader George Hawi -- were killed by similar car bombs. Since then, other car bombs have wounded Lebanon's caretaker defense minister and a television journalist who was critical of Syria.
Last month, the chief U.N. investigator, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, traveled to Damascus to interview Kanaan and the officer who succeeded him as Syrian military intelligence chief in Lebanon. The interviews followed the arrest about three weeks earlier of four top former Lebanese security officials with close ties to Syria. They were charged by Lebanese authorities with involvement in Hariri's murder.
Mehlis is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council on his report on Oct. 25, a U.N. spokesman said.
After a progress report to the Security Council in August, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, charged publicly that Syria was not cooperating with the probe and said this was "unacceptable."
Asked today about Kanaan's death and the consequences for Syria if that country is implicated in Hariri's murder, President Bush said he did not want to "prejudge" the Mehlis report.
"I think it's very important for Syria to understand that the free world respects Lebanese democracy and expects Syria to honor that democracy," Bush said after a meeting in the White House with the visiting Polish president. "You know, it's one thing to have been asked to remove troops and all intelligence services. Now the world . . . expects Syria to honor the democracy in the country of Lebanon."
He said the United States also wants Syria to "shut down the transshipment of suiciders and killers into Iraq" and "not to agitate killers in the Palestinian territory." He added, "So we have a lot of expectations for Syria beyond just the Mehlis report. But let's see how the Mehlis report -- what it says."
Before Kanaan's death was disclosed, Syrian President Bashar Assad told CNN that if the U.N. investigation turned up proof of Syrian involvement in Hariri's assassination, those involved would be charged with treason and possibly handed over to an international court.
In announcing the death, an English bulletin of the Syrian Arab News Agency said in its entirety: "Minister of Interior Gen. Ghazi Kanaan died in his office before noon on Wednesday by committing suicide. The authorities concerned have been conducting investigations into the incident."
Kanaan, 63, served as military intelligence chief in Lebanon from 1982 to 2002, then returned to Damascus to head the powerful Political Security Directorate. He became interior minister in October 2004. He was a member of the Alawite Muslim minority that has long dominated Syria under the late president Hafez Assad, who died in 2000, and his son and successor, Bashar Assad.
In the radio interview shortly before his death, Kanaan strongly denied a Lebanese television report yesterday that quoted him as telling the Mehlis investigation that he participated in "corruption and bribery" in Lebanon. The report on Beirut's private New TV channel said Kanaan showed U.N. investigators copies of checks and bank statements, including checks paid to him by Hariri.
In denying the report, Kanaan told the Voice of Lebanon that he testified to the U.N. investigative commission "to shed the light on an era during which we have served Lebanon," but that "sadly some media outlets have reported lies to mislead public opinion."
He said, "I want to make clear that our relation with our brothers in Lebanon was based on respect and mutual affection that benefited everyone in Lebanon, to get the country out of its troubles at the time. We have served Lebanon's interest with honor and honesty."
The New TV report not only gave incorrect information about him, but wrongly damaged the reputation of Hariri, Kanaan said.
At the end of the radio interview, he asked the station's anchor to distribute copies of his remarks to other news media, saying, "I think this might be my last statement."
Syrian and Lebanese news media reported that Kanaan committed suicide shortly after hanging up.
Some Lebanese expressed skepticism about the suicide report, commenting that Kanaan sounded cordial and relaxed in the radio interview.
"Until now, we don't know the reason [for the suicide] but our investigation will tell us quickly," Information Minister Mahdi Dakhl-Allah told the Al Jazeera satellite television network, Reuters news agency reported. "Whatever happens, stability won't be shattered in Syria. We are one of the most stable countries in the region."
He asserted that the U.N. investigation would show that "Syria had nothing to do with" the Hariri assassination.
But Gebran Tueni, a Lebanese legislator, said in a television interview from Paris that he saw Kanaan's death as proof of Syrian involvement in the murder of Hariri.
Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese army commander and prime minister who returned to his country in May after 14 years in exile, told reporters in Beirut that the U.N. investigative commission should look into whether Kanaan took his own life or was murdered.
Either way, Aoun said, "this doesn't change the fact that a part of the Syrian regime has committed suicide today."
Special correspondent Alia Ibrahim contributed to this report from Beirut.