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Syria accused of slowing death probe

UNITED NATIONS -- Syria still is not fully cooperating with a probe into the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, and investigators may need two more years at this rate, the chief of the inquiry told the UN Security Council yesterday.

Detlev Mehlis acknowledged that Syria had permitted five high-ranking officials to be interviewed in Vienna, and he did not outright accuse the government of violating a Security Council resolution that threatened ''further action" unless Syria cooperates.

''At this rate, the investigation may take another year or two," Mehlis told the council as he presented his latest progress report on the probe.

Mehlis' statements apparently did not go far enough to persuade diplomats on the 15-nation council to seek sanctions against Damascus. Instead, it was considering two Lebanese requests: to widen the probe into former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's death to include other political killings; and to form an international tribunal that would try suspects in his death.

The report Mehlis delivered to the council said new evidence strengthened his belief that the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services had a hand in Hariri's assassination Feb. 14 in Beirut. It said there were 19 suspects so far, including six high-ranking Syrian officials, and detailed how Damascus had tried to hinder the probe.

The killing of Hariri, a leading anti-Syrian politician, sent shock waves through Lebanon, which has been under Syrian political and military control for decades. His death sparked street protests that prompted the Syrian military to withdraw from Lebanon in April.

Since then, the region has been thrown into renewed turmoil by a string of similar car bombings and assassinations. On Monday, a leading anti-Syrian journalist and lawmaker, Gibran Tueni, was killed by a car bomb outside Beirut.

Syria's UN ambassador, Feyssal Mekdad, denied Mehlis' claims and said Syria had cooperated fully.

''Finally we have given to the committee whatever it wants," Mekdad told reporters, adding that Syria also wants to get to the bottom of Hariri's killing.

After Mehlis's open briefing, the council went into a closed meeting to question him about the extent of Syria's cooperation.

Diplomats said that the Security Council is likely to extend Mehlis' probe, which had been scheduled to end Dec. 15, by another six months as he has requested.

Some UN diplomats, including from the United States, said it was too early to make a decision on Lebanon's request to investigate the other bombings or to set up a tribunal to prosecute suspects in Hariri's death. Others were more sanguine.

''We would like to see a positive response to the government of Lebanon," Britain's UN ambassador, Emyr Jones-Parry, said.

In October, Mehlis' team released findings that implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in Hariri's slaying and said greater Syrian cooperation was needed. Syria denied involvement in the blast and accused Mehlis of bias.

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