While the results of the UN probe into Al-Hariri's assassination are pending, five Lebanese officials are detained for questioning, reports Serene Assir
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General Raymond Azar, General Mustafa Hamdan, Major-General Ali Hajj, Nasser Qandil, Major-General Jamil Sayyed
In Lebanon, a country whose politics seem too often to undergo upheaval, the target of the public's attention continues to be the United Nations' investigation into the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri on 14 February. While tentative reports in the Arab press had cited the expected date of the report's release to be 25 August, complications led to any disclosure being indefinitely postponed.
However, on Tuesday the most important development in the process of the investigation so far took place when five Lebanese officials were detained for questioning. By Wednesday Nasser Qandil, a former Lebanese pro-Damascus lawmaker, had been released. He refused to comment on the precise details of the questioning he had just undergone. However, he emphasised that he too was eager for the truth about the assassination of the former premier to come out.
Meanwhile, the former chief of General Security Major General Jamil Sayed, the former head of the Internal Security Forces Major General Ali Hajj, the former head of military intelligence Brigadier General Raymond Azar and the presidential guards chief Brigadier General Mustafa Hamdan are still being held for questioning. All five worked closely with Syria while holding their former posts, and continue to have good relations with Damascus to this day. Qandil was in Damascus when police arrived at his home to detain him. They only managed to take him into custody after he reentered Lebanese territory.
The mandate of the investigation is due to expire mid- September, but despite the recent developments it seems highly likely that this deadline will be extended. At the centre of things is the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. German prosecutor and head of the UN investigation team, Detlev Mehlis, accused Syria of placing obstacles in the probe's way by failing to fully cooperate. Specific members of the Syrian security forces were pointed out by the UN team for having failed to answer questions surrounding the case as well as withholding documents and witnesses. A briefing issued to the Security Council by its Undersecretary-General Ibrahim Al-Gambari added that while Syria had offered to discuss the investigators' demands, this stance could by no means justify a denial of full access by the UN team to documents and interviews.
In reply to the accusations, Al-Assad has promised to fully cooperate with the investigation. He explained in an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel that the origin of the difficulties lay in the fact that, according to the Syrian constitution, Syrian officials may not be questioned by foreigners. However, he added that because he wanted to clear his regime from any further blame for the assassination (for "Syria had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with this killing," he said), he would ensure direct access by investigators to all officials.
Meanwhile, the newly elected, post-withdrawal Lebanese government added to the pressure on Damascus. While he did not specifically mention Syria, Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora -- once the director of Al-Hariri's office -- said the Lebanese needed to know the truth about the assassination. Ever since the former premier was killed, and even after the Syrians withdrew their military presence following a 29-year- long period of occupation, relations between the neighbouring and historically linked states have been tenuous.
The final shape of relations between the two -- until this year characterised by deep-level ties -- has not been determined. So far, while it remains impossible to provide strong evidence that Syria has lived up to its promise of removing its security agents from Lebanon, both the Lebanese government and people remain split to this day as to how relations with Damascus should be conducted, with some perceiving the larger state as a necessary and natural ally, and others viewing it as an agent of blatant exploitation.
Not surprisingly, the United States has not been shy in its fervour for the UN team's criticism of Syria. In fact, US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton reproached Al-Gambari's briefing on Damascus's lack of cooperation for being "too lenient". He added, according to BBC online, that there should be "no ambiguity about the American view that Syria's lack of cooperation is not acceptable".
Another closely related issue is that of the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which the US remains keen on pushing. And with precisely this goal in mind, several US and EU representatives were expected to arrive in Beirut to discuss the resolution with top Lebanese government officials. Among the members of the international team is Javier Solana, head of the EU's common foreign and security policy committee, expected in the Lebanese capital Tuesday. Also expected is the UN's Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, whose mission is to investigate whether the Syrians have indeed withdrawn all intelligence agents.
While the full withdrawal of Syria was high on the list of policy changes stipulated by Resolution 1559, fears abound in Lebanon -- even among members of the anti-Syrian camp -- that the US and the EU might simply be using it as a pretext to exert more direct control over Lebanon's internal affairs; long perceived as a target of the West, in particular since the civil war.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, MP, one of the main figureheads leading the anti-Syrian demonstrations that were triggered by the assassination of Al-Hariri, is among the officials who have criticised Resolution 1559 as a means to neutralise Lebanon's national stance against Israel and to fully disarm the resistance wing of the Shia party Hizbullah, which continues to operate along the southern border areas.