11/28/2005, 00.00
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In Vienna Mehlis ready to interrogate Syrians involved in the Hariri assassination

No one knows when the interrogations will start or who the UN commission of inquiry will hear. Reports suggest Saudi Arabia was instrumental in securing agreement.

Beirut (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Everything is ready in Vienna after the Syrian government gave Detlev Mehlis, head of the international investigation into the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the green light to interrogate five Syrian officials.

The UN offices in Vienna were chosen after a long stand-off between Mehlis, who wanted to conduct the interrogations in Lebanon, and the Syrian government that deemed such a proposal offensive, and had proposed instead somewhere in Syria or Egypt.

The stand-off not only involved where interrogations could take place but also who would have to answer questions  since Mehlis' original list had six, not five names. Despite the official silence—the commission's spokesperson has refused to answer questions on the matter—Lebanon's press is almost certain that the name left off the list, for now, is that of Assef Shawkat, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law. The other names are those of officials in charge of Syria's secret services in Damascus and Beirut.

Except for the names, little is known about the interrogations, when they'll begin or what Mehlis and Riad Daoudi, legal advisor to Syria's Foreign Ministry, said to each other yesterday.

It would seem the two discussed guarantees that the men to be interrogated will not be detained and will be able instead to return home.

There are however "contradictory indications" and a "total lack of transparency" on all these issues wrote Lebanese daily L'Orient.

Arab papers report instead that the Syria-UN agreement came after Saudi mediation.

Saudi special envoy, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is thought to have met "by chance" Kofi Annan at Paris airport on his way to a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac where the UN Secretary-General is supposed to have given him the go-ahead. 

Syrian news agency SANA reported that Jordanian king Abdallah sent President al-Assad a message of congratulations via Prince Bandar. The same source said the two heads of state had previously spoken by phone.

The Saudi initiative may not have been the only one. Other Arab countries are said to have put pressures on Damascus.

Syria's newspapers stressed how "satisfied" the authorities in Damascus were on hearing a statement by US State Department spokesman Adam Early, who told Arab paper al-Hayat that al-Assad was "more reasonable than Saddam Hussein" and that it was preferable to "find solutions before imposing international sanctions".

Still, a sit-in by Syrian "youth" continues in al-Rawdah square in Damascus near the US Embassy. Protesters continue to link the attitude of the international community, especially the US and its allies, towards Syria to President al-Assad's opposition to the "unjust war in Iraq".

In Malaysia, where he is on an official visit, Syria's Economy Ministry Abdallah Dardari stated that the confrontation with the UN over the Hariri affair has had no impact on foreign investment in the country, in particular from Arab countries.

"Between now and the end of the year, we should have raised about a billion dollars from Gulf countries," he said.

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See also
Unless Syria co-operates the Hariri inquiry might last years, says Mehlis
Syria to reject UN request to interview Assad
All out barrage from Damascus against the Mehlis report
Mehlis leaves, UN probe into Assad's role continues
Possible link between Hariri murder and 14 other attacks, says Brammertz


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