DAMASCUS -- Syria's interior minister, who effectively controlled Lebanon for two decades, was found dead in his office yesterday, days before the release of a UN report that could implicate high-ranking officials in the murder of Lebanon's former prime minister.
The Syrian government called the death of Brigadier General Ghazi Kenaan a suicide, but opponents asserted it could be a murder to cover up top-level involvement.
The news of Kenaan's death shocked Syrians, and the government felt compelled to stress it would not affect the country's political stability.
Kenaan, who was Syria's intelligence chief in Beirut for 20 years, was one of at least seven Syrians recently questioned by a UN team investigating the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Kenaan was a ''central figure in Syria's occupation of Lebanon for many years," but that it was up to Syrian authorities to assess the circumstances of his death.
President Bush, asked about the upcoming UN report, said he did not wish to prejudge it. But he added it was ''important for Syria to understand the free world respects Lebanese democracy, and expects Syria to honor that democracy."
The government has been quietly preparing for the UN report by consolidating power, readying a diplomatic counteroffensive, and taking steps to guard against any sanctions.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an interview with CNN before Kenaan's death was announced, rejected any possibility that Damascus ordered Hariri's assassination.
''This is against our principles and my principles, and I would never do such a thing in my life," Assad said. ''What do we achieve? I think what happened targeted Syria."
Asked whether it was possible such a crime could have taken place without his knowledge, Assad replied: ''I wouldn't think so. As I said, if that happened, this is treason."
He added that if the UN investigation produces proof of Syrian involvement, those involved would be charged with treason and could be handed over to an international court.
Dennis Ross, a former US Mideast mediator, said if the UN report does point to Syrian involvement, it probably would revolve around Kenaan because of his prominent position.
''I don't believe it was a suicide," Ross said. ''The timing is extraordinarily coincidental. It certainly would look as if someone was trying to create the impression the person responsible for (the Hariri murder) is dead."
Kenaan, 63, committed suicide in his office, according to the official SANA news agency, the first to break the news -- a sign that authorities in Damascus, who tightly control the media, wanted it out.
Hours before he died, Kenaan told a Lebanese radio station: ''I believe this is the last statement that I can make." He confirmed speaking to UN investigators but denied a report that he told them about corrupt Syrian officials.
A Syrian official said Kenaan shot himself in the mouth with a silencer-equipped gun.