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UN investigators interview Lebanese president
Updated: 2005-11-12 09:35

U.N. investigators interviewed Lebanon's president on Friday about the assassination of a former prime minister — the first time the U.N. commission has received testimony from a head of state since it began collecting evidence in June.

Chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis has said President Emile Lahoud is not a suspect in the Feb. 14 truck bombing that killed Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 20 others on a Beirut street. But a suspect made a call to the president's phone minutes before the blast, according to the U.N. commission's interim report last month.

Four Lebanese generals, all pro-Syrian, are under arrest and charged with Hariri's murder after the U.N. commission named them as suspects. One of the generals is the commander of the presidential guard and two others are close to Lahoud.

On Friday evening, two investigators came to the presidential palace in Baabda to meet with Lahoud, the president's office said.

"The president informed (the investigators) of the accurate information pertaining to what has been reported about phone calls to the presidential palace before and after the crime, in addition to rumors relating to the crime that were carried by the media," the presidential statement said.

The president's office has denied Lahoud received a call from a suspect minutes before the explosion.

Officials close to the U.N. investigation said the investigators asked the president about communications and the chain of command in his office. The meeting lasted more than an hour, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

By contrast, the commission's request to interview President Bashar Assad of Syria was refused, according to the report last month.

Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council upgraded the powers of the commission. It gave Mehlis, a German prosecutor, the right to interview anybody and to select the venue and conditions. The council also resolved that Syria must cooperate fully with the commission and warned of further action if it failed to do so.

The killing of Hariri, who was regarded as a quiet opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, was a turning point in modern Lebanese history. It provoked mass demonstrations against Syria and magnified the international pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

In April, fewer than three months after the murder, Syria withdrew its forces, ending a 29-year military domination of its western neighbor.

Lahoud, a political enemy of Hariri, has supported the U.N. investigation. He has repeatedly denied any role in the murder and called for the culprits to be punished.

However, his being interviewed by the commission is likely to strengthen calls from politicians and newspapers opposed to Syria for Lahoud to resign. The demand for his resignation has intensified since Syrian forces withdrew and the arrest of the four generals in August.

Lahoud has refused to step down, and enjoys the support of the influential Maronite Church, of which he is a member. He is also backed by a prominent Christian leader as well as the Amal and Hezbollah groups, which represent the Shiite Muslims, the country's largest community.

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