U.S., France Back Probe of Hariri Murder

The United States and France expressed confidence that a U.N.-appointed team led by a top Irish police official will be able to determine who was responsible for assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search).

The two countries have led calls for an international investigation of the Feb. 14 explosion on a Beirut seafront that destroyed Hariri's motorcade of armor-plated vehicles, killing him and 16 others and injuring over 100 people.

After a public briefing Tuesday on Mideast issues, Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast (search) told a closed-door Security Council meeting that the inquiry team led by Deputy Police Commissioner Peter Fitzgerald would arrive in Beirut in the next 48 hours, U.N. diplomats said.

"We have a lot of confidence in the team that's been put together to try to get to the bottom of Mr. Hariri's assassination," acting U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson (search) said after the council meeting.

Prendergast told council members that the team led by Deputy Police Commissioner Peter Fitzgerald would stay in the region for several weeks, she said. and report to Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Security Council within a month.

Prendergast said the team would report to Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Security Council in a month, and he thought "it would be well less than that — and that would be our hope, too," Patterson said.

France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere expressed satisfaction that the inquiry will meet French President Jacques Chirac's demand for an international investigation, saying "It is very close to what we have asked."

"What is important is to give an international dimension to the quest of truth because if not, we will not have the truth. We hope and we are confident that this team" will succeed, de La Sabliere said.

He stressed that it was also very important "to have the Lebanese government cooperating with this team."

At the request of the Security Council, Annan last week appointed Fitzgerald to lead a team to urgently report on "the circumstances, causes and consequences" of the assassination.

The team includes two other senior Irish police officials, chief superintendent Martin Donlan and Patrick Leahy who heads the National Support Bureau, as well as U.N. legal adviser Leila Benkirane and U.N. political adviser Ezzedine Choukri-Fisher, a Middle East expert, council diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said he expects the team to be "looking at evidence and trying to reconstitute how this crime was committed and, if possible, who committed it."

"They're starting in Lebanon," he said. "And if they feel they need to go wider than Lebanon as part of the inquiry, they will do so."

During Tuesday's closed-door council meeting, Patterson and de La Sabliere said they also reiterated U.S. and French demands for Syria to withdraw its 15,000 troops from Lebanon, as called for in a U.N. resolution adopted Sept. 2 which they cosponsored.

Patterson said the U.S. message was "that it's time for Syria to get out of Lebanon."

De La Sabliere added that "it's not only the military forces but the intelligence forces" from Syria that must leave.