United States and Britain call international stand against Syria

The United States and Britain called yesterday for an international stand against Syria in the wake of a U.N. report that implicated Syrian officials in the assassination of a former Lebanese leader. Syria countered by discounting the report as an American plot and began a diplomatic drive to explain its position.

A Syrian official, deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, said the pressure on Syria resulted from America's aim of dominating the region. He denied he had threatened the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, days before Hariri was assassinated as the U.N. report said.

"This is totally untrue," Moallem said in the first response by a Syrian official named in the report.

The U.S.-British call for action, in a joint BBC interview by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, underlined the growing pressure on Syria as it faces possible action by the U.N. Security Council later this week.

"The report indicated that people of a high level of this Syrian regime were implicated," Straw told the BBC. "We also have evidence ... of false testimony being given by senior people in the regime. This is very serious."

Rice called for "a firm response" from the international community. Officials in Washington have said privately that the United States is considering pushing for possible U.N. sanctions against Syria, or to have any criminal cases heard by an international tribunal.

Straw said earlier that U.N. Security Council members would consider sanctions. But it is not clear if the United States and Britain have members such as Russia on their side.

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, in an interview published yesterday in the Le Parisien newspaper, called on Syria to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into Hariri's murder and said any country involved in the killing should face economic sanctions, reports Seattle Times. I.L.