November 9, 2005 11:17 pm

UK warns Syria over UN interviews

British officials have warned that Syria?s failure to respond positively to UN investigators? demand for the questioning of six officials could trigger another meeting of the UN Security Council by the end of the month, and more international pressure on Damascus.

Detlev Mehlis, who heads the UN probe into the February killing of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon?s former prime minister, has asked the Syrian authorities to send six Syrian officials, including Assef Chawkat, the chief of military intelligence and brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad, to be interviewed by his team in Lebanon.

The request followed the passing of a UN resolution that demanded full Syrian co-operation with the UN probe, including sending officials abroad for interviews. The resolution passed last week extended the investigators? mandate until December 15 and warned of ?further action? if Syria failed to co-operate.

Diplomats in New York insist that any determination of Syrian non-co-operation before December would have to come directly from Mr Mehlis. But they suspect he would react relatively quickly to any clear breach of UN demands.

A senior British official said that if Mr Chawkat failed to appear for an interview ?we?ll be in the Security Council later this month?.

Mr Mehlis? request is the first serious test of Syrian co-operation. Officials in Damascus have said the government is considering the demand and Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, will give a rare televised address to the nation today, in which he might clarify his regime?s stance towards the investigation.

On Wednesday, however, the commission set up by the government to conduct its own probe into the Hariri killing invited Mr Mehlis to Damascus ?to discuss the best means and mechanism of co-operation between the two committees?.

Ghada Murad, who heads the commission, said in her letter to Mr Mehlis that she hoped to draw up a memorandum of understanding with the UN probe ?for full co-operation and co- ordination with you to find the truth that we all seek?.

The Syrian panel said that, in a co-ordinated move with the UN team, it had imposed a travel ban on the six officials and had started to question them. It was not clear how the travel ban might affect UN attempts to interview the six outside Syria.

An interim UN report released late last month said the Hariri assassination could not have happened without the approval of top-ranking Syrian officials. The report also cited a witness account of planning meetings that were allegedly attended by Mr Chawkat as well as Maher al-Assad, the president?s brother and head of the Presidential Guard.

Analysts say President Assad is unlikely to hand over family members who also form the security pillars of the regime, should they be named as suspects.

In addition to Mr Chawkat, Mr Mehlis is believed to have asked to interview five officials, including Bahjat Suleiman, the former head of internal security in general intelligence, and Rustom Ghazale, who headed Syrian intelligence in Lebanon until April, when Damascus withdrew its troops.

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