Syria's interior minister was found dead Wednesday in his office in the Syrian capital, Damascus, in what the government described as a suicide. The death of Maj. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan came just days before the planned release of a U.N. report on suspected Syrian involvement in the car-bomb assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister.
Kanaan, 63, who for two decades was Syria's top intelligence official here in neighboring Lebanon, fatally shot himself, according to a statement issued by SANA, the official Syrian news agency. The statement gave no further details, saying only that an official investigation had been launched.
"The Syrian government was shocked by this death," Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha said in Washington.
A U.N. investigator is to release a report as early as next week on the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister whose slaying in Beirut on Feb. 14 touched off a series of unprecedented anti-Syrian street protests in Lebanon and eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country after a 29-year presence.
Lebanese opposition leaders and several foreign governments accused Syria, which had maintained thousands of troops and intelligence agents in Lebanon since 1976, of involvement in the bombing, and the U.N. report is widely expected to find top Syrian officials culpable.
Kanaan was one of several Syrians questioned in the U.N. probe headed by Detlev Mehlis, the German investigator expected to report to the Security Council before the Oct. 25 deadline.
Less then two hours before his body was found, Kanaan was interviewed on Voice of Lebanon radio and denied reports that he had told investigators of corrupt dealings with Hariri. He ended the interview by saying, "I hope this statement will be passed to all media outlets, because I believe it could be the last one I make."
As head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon from 1982 to 2002, Kanaan orchestrated the myriad political and militant groups vying for control of the country amid the chaos of a lingering civil war. In 1983 he managed to scuttle a U.S.-brokered peace agreement between the Lebanese and Israeli governments, eventually forcing the pullout of a multinational force deployed in the wake of Israel's invasion of Lebanon. He also was known as the engineer of laws adopted in Lebanon's parliament that guaranteed seats for Syria's supporters.
Syrian officials and analysts said they believed Kanaan committed suicide because he had become frustrated by developments in Lebanon, including the public outcry that forced the Syrian troop withdrawal in April.
"Kanaan belonged to the category of egocentric political personalities who would rather commit suicide than see all that he has achieved falling apart," analyst Imad Shuaiby told al-Jazeera television. "I met him a couple of weeks ago, and he was depressed because of what's happening in Lebanon. He told me he felt Lebanon was heading toward partition, and he was very bitter about it."
Former Syrian legislator Joe Jabour said in an interview with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. that Kanaan could not handle the pressure put on him lately by the news media.
Several Lebanese politicians, however, said they believed the Syrian government killed Kanaan to prevent him from implicating Syria in Hariri's assassination, even though he had already testified.
Gebran Tueni, a member of Lebanon's parliament, called Kanaan's death "proof of Syria's involvement in Hariri's murder."
"I can't believe that someone like Kanaan could commit suicide, and only days before Mehlis's report," Tueni said in a telephone interview from Paris. "I believe the Syrian regime is confused and felt it had to get rid of Kanaan because he might say more than what he already told the international committee."
Another Lebanese lawmaker, Fouad Saad, said that "what happened to Kanaan is definitely going to lead more people to accuse Syria of involvement in the murder of Hariri, as well as all the bombings and assassinations that have taken place in Lebanon over the last year. But I think it would be better to wait for Mehlis's report before we make any accusations."
Syria's government rejected accusations that it was responsible for Kanaan's death and repeated assertions that the U.N. report on Hariri's assassination would not point to involvement by Syria.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an interview with CNN before Kanaan's death was announced, rejected any possibility that Damascus had ordered Hariri's assassination. "This is against our principles and my principles, and I would never do such a thing in my life," Assad said. "What do we achieve? I think what happened targeted Syria."