Syria said Friday it would allow five officials to be questioned at U.N. offices in Vienna about the February assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The deal ends a month-long stalemate in which Syria faced possible U.N. sanctions.
The date for the interviews will be determined in consultation with chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis, Syria's deputy foreign minister, Walid Mouallem, told reporters in the capital, Damascus. The agreement "aborts any justification for economic sanctions against Syria," Mouallem said.
The five will include Syria's chief of military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Asef Shawkat, brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad, according to a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Mehlis is scheduled to meet with Syria's top legal adviser over the weekend to prepare for the interviews.
John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, welcomed the Syrian move and attributed it to pressure from the Security Council. "We hope this Syrian cooperation continues and grows," Bolton said in a statement.
Mehlis had given the Syrian government a deadline of Friday to agree to the questioning. Failure to do so could have led him to report Syria to the Security Council for lack of cooperation, a step toward the imposition of punitive sanctions.
Syria sent army units into Lebanon in 1976 during the civil war there. They remained, and for 29 years Syria dominated many aspects of Lebanese politics. Hariri, who had become increasingly critical of Syria's role in Lebanon toward the end of his career, was killed along with 22 other people by a car bomb in Beirut on Feb. 14. Outrage in Lebanon and abroad prompted a U.N. investigation of the killing and forced Syria to withdraw its troops.
The U.N. probe headed by Mehlis concluded in a preliminary report in October that the bombing could not have been carried out "without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials." The report also accused Syrian officials of failing to fully cooperate and of lying to the commission.
A leaked version of the report implicated high-level Syrian officials by name, including Shawkat and the president's younger brother, Maher Assad.
On Oct. 31, the Security Council passed Resolution 1636, demanding that Syria cooperate fully with the investigation or face further action.
In recent weeks, questions about which Syrian government figures would be interviewed and where emerged as the main sticking points. Syria refused to send officials to Beirut, citing fear for their safety and concern that they would be arrested. It pushed instead for the questioning to take place in the Syrian-controlled area of the Golan Heights or in the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo.
Earlier this week, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa sent letters to the Security Council and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan asking for a "cooperation protocol" between the investigation committee and Syria to lay out the ground rules for the questioning. Mehlis rejected the request, apparently wanting to conduct the questioning on his own terms.
Over the last two days, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt and Jordan all mounted diplomatic efforts to break the deadlock.
Under the deal reached Friday, Shawkat will be the last to face questioning, the U.N. official said.
According to Mouallem, the five officials will be questioned in the presence of their attorneys and will then return to Damascus. He said the government had received assurances that Syrian sovereignty would be protected, as would the individual rights of those being questioned. He declined to elaborate on what those assurances were.
Mehlis had asked for the questioning of six Syrian officials. It was not clear Friday why the parties agreed to five. Mouallem declined to name any of the five, saying it was a "secretive" matter of the committee.
"The last time Mehlis asked to interview Syrians, the government allowed them all to be interviewed," said Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma political scientist who is based in Damascus. "But Mehlis was unhappy and said they had lied and stonewalled and not said the truth. Mehlis could still come to that same conclusion after he interviews these five people in Vienna. Syria is not off the hook."
On the streets of Damascus on Friday, many people said they were relieved at the news. "Up until this morning, everybody felt that a decision like this would not be taken," said Adnan Habbab, 27, a travel agent. "I felt very relieved. . . . This will be much better for our businesses. Hopefully things will now go back to normal."
Khaled Khalifeh, 41, a film director, called the deal "a good thing and a step toward our safety." But, he said, referring to the Syrian government: "I don't know if they will cooperate afterward."
Staff writer Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.