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New Hariri probe head faces death threat
Updated: 2005-12-29 10:46

A pro-Syrian group that claimed it killed a Lebanese editor has threatened to kill the next head of the U.N. commission investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the editor's newspaper reported Wednesday.

Syria, meanwhile, promised Wednesday to fully cooperate with the new U.N. investigator, but repeated its demands for an agreement with the U.N. commission defining the terms of its cooperation.

An-Nahar newspaper said it had received a statement signed by "The Strugglers for the Unity and Freedom in al-Sham," the group that claimed responsibility for the death of Gibran Tueni with a car bomb on Dec. 12. Al-Sham is the Arabic term for the historical region that encompassed Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The statement said Detlev Mehlis, who stepped down this month as chairman of the U.N. commission, was lucky to escape death. Mehlis had concluded that Syria was involved in the killing of Hariri, who was slain by a truck bomb in Beirut in February. Syria denies the charge.

"Mehlis was able to slip out of our hands a moment before it was too late when he chose to resign because he understood the message and realized that if he did not do that, his end would be wretched like the end of all traitors who betray Arabs and Islam," the statement said.

An-Nahar published the full text of the statement, but did not say why it believed it to be authentic or how it had been received. When The Associated Press called the paper's offices, staff said that the person who could answer such questions was not immediately available.

The statement described Mehlis, a German prosecutor, as a "filthy infidel" who had politicized the investigation to implicate Syria. It warned Mehlis's successor, who has not been appointed, not to come to the same conclusions.

The statement ended with an ominous Arabic saying: "He who has given advance warning is excused."

At the United Nations, officials and diplomats said Wednesday that Secretary-General Kofi Annan has nominated Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz to lead the next stage of the Hariri probe.

They said Brammertz, a deputy prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, had accepted Annan's offer and that the world body was waiting to make an announcement because the chief ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, had not written a letter formally releasing him. They spoke on condition of anonymity because his appointment had not been made public.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said Syria will fully cooperate with the U.N. commission but wants to sign an agreement outlining "the rights and obligations of each side."

Mehlis had rejected a previous Syrian demand to sign a cooperation protocol with the U.N. commission similar to the one signed with Lebanese authorities.

Syria will not criticize the new U.N. investigator unless he starts criticizing it, al-Sharaa said, adding, "Syria will cooperate with him to the utmost extent."

There was some fear that the United States, which opposes the ICC, might object to Brammertz's appointment, but U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said Wednesday that was not the case.

"We believe strongly that a clear signal of determination and continuity must be sent to Syria's leaders," Bolton said in a statement.

Brammertz was not commenting on issues relating to the Hariri position, including the threats, ICC prosecution spokesman Christian Palme said. The U.N. also had no comment on the threats.

The alleged authors of the statement had not been heard of until they claimed responsibility for Tueni's killing. Tueni, who was also a member of parliament, was a leader of the campaign to remove Syria's influence from Lebanon.

Mehlis has said he received threats during his work in Lebanon. When he moved around the country, he was always heavily guarded.

He has offered to guide the U.N. commission's work until the end of January or when a replacement is found.

The Feb. 14 assassination of Hariri was a turning point in modern Lebanese history. As Hariri was seen as a quiet opponent of Syrian influence, his killing provoked mass demonstrations against Syria. The protests, combined with international pressure, forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year military presence in the country.

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