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Syrian President Denies Threatening Slain PM Hariri

Syrian President Bashar Assad denied threatening Lebanon's former prime minister but suggested in an interview published Saturday that he would not allow U.N. investigators to interview him aboutRafik Hariri's killing.

Syria's former vice president Abdul-Halim Khaddam, who defected to France, told The Associated Press on Friday that Assad had threatened Hariri during their last meeting.

"I don't know what others meant by threatening," Assad was quoted as saying in the Egyptian opposition weekly al-Osboa. "This never happened and the aim was to connect the threat with the assassination. The game is clear. Nobody attended the last meeting between me and Hariri, therefore, how can they make these allegations?"

Assad also indirectly rejected the latest request from U.N. investigators to interview him about the Hariri assassination, saying he has "international immunity."

The two leaders met in August 2004 to discuss extending the term of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, which Hariri opposed. Hariri died in a truck bombing in February 2005.

A report by a U.N. team investigating Hariri's assassination and several anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians have suggested a Syrian role in the killing.

Syria confirmed Tuesday it had received a request by the U.N. investigative panel to interview Assad about Hariri's assassination. Asked in the interview what his reply was, Assad did not give a clear answer.

"This time they asked to meet President Bashar, and the president has international immunity as you know," he said. He added that Syria had replied to the U.N. team but there was no indication that the response directly addressed the interview request.

Assad reiterated past pledges by his country to cooperate in the investigation.

The Syrian leader acknowledged that Hariri opposed Lahoud's extension but said he told Hariri he was not pressing him. He asked Hariri to "go and think it over for one day or more ... and he agreed to the Syrian demand. He was not obstinate or tiresome, therefore, there was basically no problem and, eventually, there was no threat."

Assad denied any connection between his country and a series of assassinations of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians and journalists over the past year. Some pro-Syrians were among those killed, he said.

"I think Lebanon is not stable security-wise ... and that any security issue is the product of a political situation and a chaotic situation leads always to chaotic security as in Iraq now," he said.

Speaking of Iraq, Assad said he warned Americans before the war not to get involved in that country.

"I used to tell visiting American delegations 'nobody doubts your victory in the battle, but after that you will sink in the swamp,"' he said. "We were surprised that the swamp was so large and appeared so quickly."

Assad advised against sending Arab troops to Iraq to solve its problems as long as "the Iraqis themselves are split on the presence of these troops."

Asked about Syria's conditions for peace talks with Israel, Assad said: "When Israel becomes really interested in peace and when the U.S. administration retains its interest in the peace process. Peace is an expression of conviction and not merely an agreement signed between two parties."