DAMASCUS -- Syria has agreed to allow its officials to be questioned at UN offices in Vienna by investigators probing the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a top diplomat said yesterday.
Syria's deputy foreign minister, Walid Moallem, said at a news conference that the breakthrough in negotiations with the United Nations was made after Syria received ''guarantees concerning the rights of the individuals" to be questioned and ''reassurances" that its sovereignty would be respected.
A UN commission mandated by the Security Council is investigating the death of Hariri, who was killed with 20 other people in a massive truck bombing on Feb. 14 in Beirut. The commission, headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, issued an interim report last month that implicated Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services in the assassination.
Moallem said Syria would soon contact the commission to schedule dates for the questioning.
''The [Syrian] leadership has decided to inform Mehlis that it accepts his suggestion, as a compromise, that the venue to listen to the five Syrian officials be the UN headquarters in Vienna," Moallem said.
Nasra Hassan, a spokeswoman for Mehlis, confirmed that the questioning would be conducted in Vienna but declined to comment on any assurances the Syrians had received.
''Mr. Mehlis welcomes this announcement of cooperation as requested by the Security Council and expresses his appreciation to all the parties who have lent their good offices in these efforts," Hassan said.
John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, also welcomed Syria's decision.
''We hope this Syrian cooperation continues and grows," he said.
Moallem declined to identify the Syrian officials, citing the ''secrecy of the investigation." He said they would be accompanied to Vienna by only their lawyers.
Reports have said Mehlis wanted to interview six officials, including the chief of Syria's military intelligence, Brigadier General Assef Shawkat, who is the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad.
But Moallem said only five were needed for questioning.
''As far as I know, the number of those wanted are five," he said. ''I don't know where you got the sixth name."
Mehlis has not publicly said whom the commission wants to interview. Moallem made his announcement a day after Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa criticized Mehlis for rebuffing Syrian offers on where and how to question the officials.
Syria had rejected Mehlis's request to interview them in Beirut, asserting that they would not be safe there. It is believed that Syria was concerned that Mehlis could recommend the arrest of the officials after they were questioned in Lebanon. Lebanon has detained several other suspects at Mehlis's request.
The UN Security Council has warned Syria to cooperate fully with the Mehlis commission or face the possibility of sanctions.
Hariri's assassination provoked mass demonstrations in Lebanon calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops, who had been stationed in the country since the second year of the 1975-90 civil war.
It also heightened international pressure for Syria to withdraw.
Syria removed its troops in April. In May-June elections, Lebanon elected its first parliament in many years that did not have a pro-Syrian majority.