Mixed reaction from Syria as UN extends inquiry

Syrians on Friday expressed relief that an immediate crisis with the United Nations over the killing of Lebanon?s former prime minister had been averted, but many remained concerned about the prospect of continued international pressure.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution late on Thursday extending by six months the investigation into the February assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a political opponent of Syria. It also asked the UN secretary-general to help Lebanon identify the international assistance it needs to set up a tribunal with an international character.

The resolution noted that Syrian authorities had made available officials for questioning in the Hariri killing but said it was ?deeply concerned? at the UN inquiry?s assessment of Syrian performance. It also demanded that Syria respond ?unambiguously and immediately? to the needs of the UN inquiry.

But the debate in New York over the resolution exposed cracks in Council unity over Syria ? with Russia and China attempting to block language critical of Damascus.

The resolution came a few days after Gebran Tueni, a leading publisher and lawmaker, was killed in a bomb explosion that many Lebanese politicians blamed again on Syria. Damascus denies involvement in the assassinations.

A Lebanese request for the investigation to be broadened to include more recent killings faced objections from Russia, China and Algeria. The three countries only agreed that the UN inquiry should provide ?technical assistance? to the Lebanese government.

Elias Mourad, editor of Syria?s state-backed al-Baath newspaper, said Damascus was pleased that its friends on the Security Council had withstood pressure to include ?negative implications for Syria? in the new resolution. But he added: ?Syria would be more relieved when this inquiry finally ends.?

In his report to the Council earlier this week, Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who has been leading the investigation but is stepping down, described a combination of co-operation and obstruction by the Syrian authorities. He said new evidence reinforced his earlier assessment that Syrian and Lebanese officials were involved in the Hariri killing.

The original French resolution, co-sponsored by the US and Britain, did not seek to impose any punitive measures on Syria over its mixed record of co-operation. A previous resolution passed in October had threatened ?further action? if Syria failed to co-operate.

In Damascus, Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian political analyst, said that through diplomatic campaigning and a ?confrontational? app-roach towards the UN inquiry, Syria had headed off any threat of sanctions.

But the feeling among decision-makers, he said, was that the US had toned down its rhetoric against Syria in recent weeks because Damascus was also acting to stem the flow of fighters and the support for insurgents into Iraq ? one of the US?s main concerns.

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