Syria denies failing to cooperate in Hariri probe

Facing intense pressure from Washington and possible economic sanctions, Syria claimed Saturday it had cooperated fully with a U.N. probe into the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister and accused anti-Syrian witnesses of lying to the chief investigator about Damascus' complicity in the murder.

But Saad Hariri, son and political heir of the slain billionaire Rafik Hariri, praised the United Nations investigation and called for an international tribunal to try the alleged killers.

In Damascus, Syrian officials sought for the second straight day to dispute the report that was released on Thursday and implicated Syria in the massive bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others in central Beirut on Feb. 14.

Syria plans a series of diplomatic steps to present its own "reading" of the report to members of the United Nations and Security Council, Dawoodi said without giving any details. But he noted his government was "totally surprised at the talk of sanctions."

The United States and France are readying resolutions critical of Syria for the U.N. Security Council, which is scheduled to meet on Tuesday to discuss the report by chief U.N. investigator, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis.

In an attempt to distance Syria from the U.N. report, Dawoodi inferred that longtime foe, Israel, could have been behind the assassination.

Dawoodi said Mehlis' report concluded that the assassination "could not have happened without a very sophisticated means which belongs to a highly equipped security organ."

Dawoodi claimed Mehlis relied on "witnesses that lack credibility," including alleged former Syrian intelligence officer, Zuhair Mohammed Al-Siddiq, who was arrested last week in Paris after he apparently gave false testimony to the U.N. team.

One of the U.N. report's key allegations was that Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa lied in a letter to investigators, though it didn't give details.

But Dawoodi disputed the claim, saying a four-line letter that al-Sharaa wrote to the U.N. team reflected "exactly what happened" at a meeting held between Hariri and President Bashar Assad in August 2004.

Anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians have claimed Assad threatened Hariri at that meeting, the last held between the pair, a claim Syria has denied.

Dawoodi said Damascus will keep cooperating with the probe, which has been extended until Dec. 15, "but we'll see what is the extent of this cooperation."

But he sidestepped a question on whether Syria would let Mehlis question witnesses abroad, a request he said Damascus has rejected before.

In contrast to Syria, Saad Hariri, who heads the largest bloc in Lebanon's parliament, called the U.N. report "a passage from the truth to justice."

In his first official comment since the report was released, the slain leader's son called for an international tribunal to try the alleged killers.

In a commentary on Syria's state-run radio, Majed Halimeh ridiculed Hariri's speech and said he cannot speak for all Lebanese.

Meanwhile, close Syrian ally Iran said it was following the Hariri murder probe with "patience and precision," according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi.

"This inhuman act (the assassination of Hariri) should not be misused for political purposes," state-run TV quoted Asefi as saying.

Syria is Iran's closest Arab ally and both countries are accused of supporting the Lebanese anti-Israel Shiite Muslim militia, Hezbollah. The United States has accused both countries of fomenting the insurgency in Iraq, AP reported. V.A.

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