UNITED NATIONS – The brother-in-law of Syria's president was implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search), and Lebanese intelligence officials helped organize it, according to a U.N. inquiry officially linking Damascus to the slaying for the first time.
The report into the Feb. 14 car bomb that killed the popular opposition leader and 20 others stopped short of directly blaming Syrian President Bashar Assad (search) or his inner circle. But it accused the regime of failing to cooperate in the inquiry and alleged that Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa (search) lied in a letter to investigators.
It also cites one witness as saying Assad's brother-in-law, military intelligence chief Assef Shawkat, set up a false confession to Hariri's murder 15 days before the bombing.
But an earlier copy read by journalists because of a computer glitch named Assad's brother and included a second reference to Shawkat. That second reference said Shawkat, Assad's brother and three others decided to assassinate Hariri and met many times to plot the killing.
Chief investigator Detlev Mehlis said Friday he deleted the references because he did not want to give the impression the men were proven guilty.
"None of these changes were influenced by anyone," Mehlis said.
Syria rejected the report, with Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah telling Al-Jazeera television it was "100 percent politicized" and "contained false accusations."
Mehlis' findings, issued Thursday to the Security Council, likely will inflame regional tensions and prompt the council to renew pressure on Syria to stop meddling in neighboring Lebanon. The council is expected to discuss the report Tuesday and may consider sanctions against Syria.
"Accountability is going to be very important for the international community," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday, declining to discuss next steps.
The decision to assassinate Hariri "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services," the report said.
At the time, Syria had about 14,000 troops in Lebanon and essentially controlled the country with its Lebanese government allies.
Mehlis was careful not to assign blame but cited witness testimony implicating several officials suspected of conspiring to assassinate Hariri. Lebanon has arrested four generals close to Syria.
The report also said Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, received a phone call minutes before the blast from the brother of a prominent member of a pro-Syrian group. That man also called one of the four generals, Brig. Gen. Raymond Azar, then the head of military intelligence.
Lahoud's office said it "categorically denies" that the president received such a phone call.
The 53-page report outlines Hariri's worsening relationship with Syria and said he apparently was killed for political reasons. Hariri had fallen out with Syria and eventually resigned as prime minister in October 2004, a month after a decision to change Lebanon's laws and extend Lahoud's term.
Pro-Syrian forces accused Hariri of pushing a U.N. resolution adopted in September 2004 that unsuccessfully attempted to stop Lebanon's parliament from extending the term of Lahoud, Hariri's longtime rival.
The resolution also demanded Syria withdraw all its troops and intelligence operatives from Lebanon.
In the report, one Syrian witness living in Lebanon and claiming to have worked for Syrian intelligence said Lebanese and Syrian officials decided to assassinate Hariri about two weeks after the resolution. In January, a senior Syrian officer in Lebanon told the witness: "Hariri was a big problem to Syria."
"Approximately a month later, the officer told the witness that there soon would be an `earthquake' that would rewrite the history of Lebanon," the report said.
The report quoted another witness as saying Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, who also was arrested, ended an October 2004 conversation by saying: "We are going to send him on a trip, bye, bye Hariri." The witnesses were not identified.
Hariri's death set off huge anti-Syrian street protests in Lebanon and intense international pressure that forced Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon a few months later, ending nearly three decades of military domination.
The report includes one reference to Shawkat, who oversees Syria's domestic and foreign intelligence. One witness said Shawkat forced a man to tape a claim of responsibility for Hariri's killing 15 days before it occurred.
That tape was aired on the Al-Jazeera satellite channel the day of the blast but was discredited by Mehlis investigators as an attempted diversion. The man who made the tape, Abu Adass, left his home Jan. 16 and likely was taken to Syria, where he disappeared.
The report meticulously details how Hariri's movements and phone conversations were monitored for months. It casts suspicion on a decision by another arrested general, Ali Hajj, to reduce Hariri's state security detail from 40 to eight in November.
Mehlis identified Sheik Ahmed Abdel-Al, a prominent figure in the pro-Syrian Al-Ahbash Sunni Muslim Orthodox group, as "a key figure in an ongoing investigation." Abdel-Al had extensive contacts with top Lebanese security officials before and after the blast, and tried to hide information from investigators.
It was his brother — also a group member — who called Lahoud before the blast.
Mehlis said there still were many leads to follow and asked for more time to work with Lebanese investigators. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said he would extend the probe until Dec. 15.
"If the investigation is to be completed, it is essential that the government of Syria fully cooperate with the investigating authorities, including by allowing interviews to be held outside Syria and for interviewees not to be accompanied by Syrian officials," Mehlis said.
The report did not refer to Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, who was questioned by investigators. Kenaan, who effectively controlled the Lebanese government for 20 years as Syria's intelligence chief there, was found dead in his office last week with a gunshot wound to his mouth.
Syria said Kenaan committed suicide, but some in Lebanon and at least one veteran U.S. mediator for the Middle East suggested he may have been killed in an attempted cover-up of Syrian involvement in Hariri's killing.